Focus on Excellence – “We’re Not asking for Pie-in-the Sky”
David J. Wilkerson, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools
As we enter another new legislative session, a great deal of attention is once again focused on the state budget and our PK-12 school funding. It appears there is also going to be quite a bit of conversation and debate around school start dates and the school calendar. I’d like to touch on both topics this month.
The school calendar issue has been around for quite some time. Opponents of an earlier start date point to tourism dollars in August, the State Fair, and time with family. They also frequently mention that schools should “follow the law” (which we do- the law very clearly allows for waivers). Early calendar proponents point out the benefits to students finishing the semester prior to winter break, better alignment with community college and university schedules, and Advanced Placement National testing dates. Our position in Waukee has always been around the alignment issue that a later start date causes for our high school students. It really isn’t an elementary issue, but it most certainly is an issue at the high school level.
There is quite a lot of misperception around the alignment issue with our postsecondary institutions. It’s NOT the August dates, but rather the cumulative effect across the entire school year. DMACC and ISU both finish their fall semester prior to winter break. DMACC’s 2016 spring semester is slated to begin January 11 and end May 5. The DMACC summer session in 2016 begins May 24 and ends August 4. Iowa State’s fall semester would begin on August 24, the spring session on January 11 and the summer session on May 16. Students taking DMACC first semester courses would likely not be able to also take a second semester course. Teachers AND students would not have access to any Iowa State summer coursework as our semester would not finish until sometime in the first week of June, which is well into the summer session.
The Advanced Placement (AP) exams are administered nationally in the first two weeks in May. We have no say in this, as they are governed by the College Board. With a later school start date, an AP class held during the spring semester would not have covered 3 or 4 weeks of content at test time. These are rigorous college level courses. In order to have all content covered, the class would need to be held during the first semester…but remember those May testing dates. That would be akin to taking a college course, finishing the semester in mid-January, and then not taking the semester final for 3 ½ months. How does that make any sense educationally? How could we expect our students to perform well on these exams, or at least well enough to receive college credit? We’ll have more information on the calendar in February and March as there is the potential for legislation this session to address the issue.
What I hope will receive more attention this legislative session, and where we could really use support from parents and community members, is school funding. By law, the legislature is supposed to set the cost per pupil within 30 days of the release of the Governor’s budget. They didn’t bother to do that in 2014 (so as for “follow the law,” the legislature didn’t).
The past seven years have been pretty lean for Iowa school funding. Iowa total expenditures per pupil have fallen in recent years compared to the rest of the nation. We now rank 35th in per pupil spending, $1,612 below the national average. In the 44-year history of the formula, in only two instances has the per pupil increase been lower that the Governor’s recommendation that came out recently for the 15-16 and 16-17 school years. Iowa’s percent change in spending per student, inflation-adjusted, from FY2008 through FY2014, is down $641 per student. Thirty-seven states have managed to do better for their schools and students despite a recovery from the recession less robust than Iowa has experienced. Our costs increase on average between 3% and 3 ½% per year. We simply cannot continue to operate at the levels our families expect without a greater increase in funding.
In my 21 years in school administration, I have yet to have a parent call me and ask me to increase the number of students in their child’s classroom, to ask if we couldn’t please squeeze a few more students onto their school bus, provide less supervision, reduce our students’ access to technology, or cut back on our co-curricular and extra-curricular offerings. In fact, it is just the opposite.
We also have a rather unique situation in Waukee compared to many other school districts in the state in that we have had continued, rapid student enrollment growth. And while enrollment is a good thing from a funding standpoint, many don’t realize that funding is always a year delayed. So for the current school year, Waukee is receiving NO FUNDING for the 485+ new students we are educating this year. Some would argue that you receive that funding the following year, which we do, but we also grow by 450-500 students again, so we never catch up. To compound that even further, any student that moves into our district after October 1 of this year, we educate with no funding, AND next year with no funding. At any given point in time we have anywhere from 50-90 students that we are educating for 1 ½ school years with no funding from the state.
I consider myself a fiscal conservative. I was raised in rural Iowa with a mindset that if you can’t afford something, you don’t buy it, you don’t borrow for it, you simply do without or scrimp and save until you can afford it. At this point in time, Iowa can afford to support its schools. We have been scrimping, increasing class sizes, asking more out of teachers, associates, custodians, secretaries and administrators and providing them with fewer resources while doing so. We’re not asking for pie-in-the sky.
To ask schools to implement substantive reforms, without providing them even minimal funding to maintain their day-to-day operations, is wrong. Putting the educational system on a starvation diet won’t lend itself to successful implementation of these efforts. If basic needs aren’t being met, how can we ask those in our system to implement major changes?