Education took hits at the Iowa Capitol

Last fall, Republicans running for legislative seats deployed TV ads and mailers promising to “fix our schools,” among other such pledges. It seemed there was no issue GOP candidates cared more about than education.

So Iowans put them in charge of the Legislature. Now, the 2017 session is over, and our K-12 public schools are in a real fix. Must have been a typo.

The 1.1 percent increase in basic state aid approved for K-12 districts next school year is paltry by historic standards and just half what Gov. Terry Branstad proposed. Our governor, elected on a promise to make Iowa schools “world class,” made no objection to slicing his ask by $40 million. Sure, the budget is tight and other areas took cuts. But after 20 years of handing out tax breaks, credits and exemptions totaling in the billions, tight state budgets are a chronic condition, with schools suffering all the symptoms. GOP lawmakers talked about reining in pricey tax giveaways, but did nothing. Now talk has turned to more tax cuts in 2018.

Lawmakers for years failed to follow a good law giving districts an 18-month heads up on state funding plans. So this year they repealed it. Legislation addressing glaring inequities in the state’s school funding formula stalled. Lawmakers failed to extend a statewide penny sales tax for school infrastructure that expires in 2029, complicating district projects.

A once ballyhooed effort creating summer programs to boost third-grade scores has been scrapped. The state never funded it. No alternative has been proposed.

Republicans insist curtailing collective bargaining rights for teachers will solve budget woes by making contracts cheaper. But the truth is we really don’t have a clear picture of what benefits and consequences the new law will spawn in Iowa. Considering it was introduced, passed and signed in 10 days, I don’t think its backers much care.

Schools were given new “home rule” authority, providing some budgetary flexibility. But the state still holds the purse strings, tightly. Republicans still hope to create “education savings accounts,” funneling per-pupil state dollars to private school and home-school families. If Iowa’s voucher program is like Florida’s, dollars will go mostly to religious schools not required to meet performance standards. If it’s like Indiana’s, most of the money for “choice” will go to families already choosing to send their kids to private schools.

The consequences for public schools? We can only hope lawmakers will pause long enough to ponder them.

Not so long ago, making schools better, making teaching more attractive and seeing public schools as an asset drawing people into Iowa were bipartisan articles of faith. Public education was a core civic commitment. Sure, there were differences over details, but it was a rare Legislature that left schools worse off.

Now, schools are cheaper, teaching is less attractive and public schools are a liability to escape. The mainstream is drained and a sharper partisan ideology has flowed in.

Yes, the state still is spending a lot of money on its schools. But the civic commitment is steadily slipping. The damage will be tough to fix.