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Education funding conversations are always central to overall budget conversations, and rightly so. Education represents over 50% of our state budget, and if you look at your property tax bill, education is also half of it. What complicates these conversations even more is that the federal government also invests some money which is generally around $2,500 per student. Unless you have an extremely functional and healthy environment to talk about this, a conversation is generally going to get heated, and anger will rise as a result of the attempt to answer the question of, “How much money is enough for education?” What complicates and frustrates our public officials, and their taxpayers even more, is when one public entity shifts the blame onto another for not being responsible enough for the funding. At the end of the day, we all are in this conversation together. Each levying entity and elected official has a piece of the “responsibility pie.”

I believe healthier conversations are possible if we start with a firmer grasp on what the actual cost of education is. When I first entered into office, I saw a poll that showed that half of Americans believe we spend less than $5,500 per student on education. For the sake of conversation, let’s assume for now the respondents were all Iowans and being asked about just our state funding alone. In that scenario, the average person is off by over 25% from the base cost to the state, an amount of $7,635, which doesn’t include categorical funding like teacher development and AEAs. If the poll question was asking about the overall cost of education (buildings, transportation, salaries, sports facilities, meals, etc), respondents would be off by over 70% from the actual cost, which is around $19,500 per student. Some of you may think that amount is way too high, some of you may think it is not enough. Regardless of which opinion you have, I hope you understand my point of needing to have a solid starting point of reference to even attempt to have a conversation.

According to iaschoolperformance.gov the following is snapshot at our local overall costs per student during fiscal year 2022:

  • Boone Community: $22,358
  • Greene Community: $18,716
  • Adair-Casey: $21,807
  • Panorama: $16,673
  • Perry: $21,806
  • Guthrie Center: $19,309

Now I will talk about the politics of this. Politicians with no idea about how much something costs are likely to ignore the actual impact on taxpayers when they ask for more of your money to fund something.

The same is true from the other side of that coin. This reality describes most of our politics around the sensitive topic of education. This to me is at the heart of why most taxpayers get to the point of becoming so frustrated about politics that they end up just ignoring public policy, or just shift their attention to the national political drama that none of us have much control over.

Let’s shift this topic to accountability. Iowa has over 300 school districts, Florida has about 70, and my understanding is Hawaii has 1 district. To be clear, I don’t support state-mandated consolidation, but it is an interesting comparison to other states. I hope the legislature will continue to simplify the funding formula to allow our boards to have more flexibility and be given more responsibility for these large amounts of dollars. For example, most people would rather have better paid teachers and not as many fancy buildings, but due to our current formula, it’s easy to blame someone like me for what appears to be an inequity within the system. Now that I am in this elected position, I will take responsibility for that. School boards are the elected officials that are closest to the people, allowing them more financial responsibility will automatically result in healthier conversations and I will always advocate for that.

The frustration of school funding is mainly what motivated me to advocate allowing some money to follow the student into the school of their family’s choice. You and I may disagree over how much money is enough, and that is a fair fight, but the more we allow dollars to reflect the values of the individual taxpayer, the happier that taxpayer will be, and the better educational product we will produce. Prior to school choice, my phone went off the hook about so many local school issues. Now that school choice has passed, my phone does not go off nearly as much. People know what my answer will be, which is to utilize school choice to find the best school that fits your needs. The goal of a public servant is to create sound policy that helps facilitate a more civil society. With healthier conversations about school funding, we will continue to see this become a reality.

Author: Jesse Green


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