Education scrutinized

Local lawmakers answer questions at first in series of Marshalltown Education Association forums

State House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, left, and state Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, answered a variety of questions at the Marshalltown Education Association legislative forum Saturday morning. Smith and Edler discussed the state budget situation, the SAVE sales tax, state supplemental aid to schools and more

A variety of bills are under scrutiny in Des Moines as the 2018 state legislative session rolls on, and local lawmakers were asked about education legislation at Saturday morning public forum.

“This is the time of the year when you hear lots of things being brought forth that you may have opinions on,” said state House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown at the this year’s first Marshalltown Education Association (MEA) Legislative Breakfast. “As those subcommittees come out, this is an opportunity for you to speak to those issues.”

State Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, also attended Saturday’s forum.

“Last week, the Senate did release their de-appropriations bill, which I think probably took some people off-guard with the amount that we did choose to de-appropriate,” he said. “However, that did leave K-12 harmless; I’m not 100 percent happy with everywhere that de-appropriation put in.”

Edler said one area of the bill he disagreed with was the cut to the state’s community colleges outlined in the bill. It calls for a $5.4 million cut to state community colleges.

The Iowa Valley Community College District, including Marshalltown Community College, would face major budget cuts if such a de-appropriation passed.

“I think that will be addressed,” Edler said of the proposed cut to community colleges.

The total cuts in the Senate de-appropriations bill come to about $52 million. Marshalltown Schools Superintendent Dr. Theron Schutte asked about state supplemental aid (SSA) to K-12 school districts.

Edler said the K-12 funding was “held harmless” because, along with Medicaid, the area is not set for cuts under the Senate de-appropriations bill. He added that the choice not to make such a cut shows that K-12 is a high priority.

However, Schutte said continued “low” increases in SSA will hurt school districts.

“The reality is we’re not keeping pace,” Schutte said, adding low increases make for tough budgetary decisions at the district level. “Even when we’re ‘held harmless,’ as you (Edler) said, you get 65 percent of the districts losing kids, they’re making cuts.”

He agreed with Edler that having no cuts with relatively low increases is preferable to cutting K-12 funding, but added “it’s not anything to be cheering about.”

Smith said the state budget continues to grow, but at a slower rate than expected.

“It’s a matter of the priorities, in my opinion, of where the money should go,” he said. “On our side of the aisle, we very strongly believe that public education, K-12 through our public institutions for higher learning, should be more of a priority than it currently is.”

Also discussed was proposed legislation to establish “education savings grants” for students attending nonpublic schools. The bill, Senate File 2091, was introduced by state Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, last week.

“There was some panic on the House side for people who oppose the education savings accounts, or voucher system, that it may be coming our direction,” Smith said of the bill. “We have not seen a bill on the House side on this; unless something comes over from the Senate or something crops up on the House side, we won’t be addressing it.”

Edler said he hasn’t yet seen Chelgren’s bill, adding he believes in continuing to fund the state’s public school system and that he is open to discussions on how education is delivered.

“We don’t want to penalize any education, because all education is good; we just need to align the right education to the right student,” he said. “How can we come up with a system that really creates that openness of education for all the kids who may have a different need?”

Edler added he would scrutinize the plan set forward in any education savings account legislation.

“I would have to really see a good plan of what’s going on or what they’re asking to do, and how it’s going to affect the K-12 funding,” he said, adding he “doesn’t know” if tagging state per-pupil funding to students who use a nonpublic school program would be the correct choice. “I don’t know that that’s the necessary answer to how we accomplish that, especially in a short budget situation.”

Smith said strengthening public schools is one of his priorities.

“We have about 70 counties in Iowa that have lost population,” he said. “It isn’t always the case, but often what you see is that when the school closes in that community, the population in that community continues to decline.”

Smith also said it is important that Iowa’s students can “compete in a global economy,” and that he thinks more money from the state’s income and sales tax receipts should be put into K-12 education.

“When you don’t have that, your only choice is to cut programs or to increase property taxes on the people, which is a more regressive tax,” he said.

A proposed bill by state Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Montour, was also discussed. The bill, which would call for the Iowa Department of Education to create an elective Bible literacy curriculum for public schools, has been met with both support and push-back.

“I have not seen the language on that,” Edler said of the bill. “I’m not going to put an unfunded mandate on the schools.”

Smith said the bill will likely spark discussion if it makes it past the committee level in the House.

“It’s one that I think, if this comes forward, it’s going to be interesting debate,” he said. “I don’t know that it will make it through the subcommittee and committee process.”

Several other issues were discussed at Saturday’s forum, including school start dates and the Securing an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) local sales tax for school infrastructure.

The MEA will continue to hold legislative forums as the session continues. The next forum is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, March 3 at the Marshalltown Public Library, 105 W. Boone St.


Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com