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Iowa tops list for funding

WORTHINGTON -- Iowa is among the top states in the nation for the fairness of its school finance system, according to a recent study by the Education Law Center.

The report, titled "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card," was issued by the New Jersey-based nonprofit organization, which studies and advocates on education policy issues.

The study measured four indicators to determine the fairness of education funding:

l Funding Level: compares the average state and local revenue per pupil across states.

l Funding Distribution: shows whether a state provides more or less funding to schools based on their poverty concentration. States are evaluated as "regressive", "progressive," or "flat" and given letter grades that correspond to their position relative to other states.

l Effort: measures differences in state spending relative to the state's fiscal capacity. States are ranked according to the ratio of state spending on education to per-capita gross domestic product.

l Coverage: States are ranked according to both the proportion of children in public schools and the income ratio of private and public school families.

The report cites Iowa as one of six states that do well on all four of the indicators. The other states are Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, Vermont and Wyoming.

Using data collected from 2005 to 2007, Iowa was given a 'C' grade for both funding distribution and effort; it was ranked 19th in funding level and 11th in coverage.

"Education has been a priority for Iowa throughout our history," Gov. Chet Culver said in a news release. "In Iowa we've not only done everything we can to meet our financial commitment to schools during challenging times, but we're among the nation's top states for making sure resources are getting to the schools and students most in need."

None of the Iowa districts come near the national average funding level of $10,123 per pupil, a number that is adjusted for factors such as regional wage variation and population density.

Iowa schools saw a 10 percent cut to their funding this year. About half of districts in the far northwest corner of the state still have per pupil spending that exceeds the state norm.

Central Lyon Community School District and George-Little Rock Community School district, both in Lyon County, each receive the state norm of $5,883 per pupil.

"We've had zero percent growth in actual dollars," said David Ackerman, the superintendent for both school districts. "Is that adequate? It's hard to say, with inflation going up and a 10 percent across-the-board cut." That cut translated to a $300,000-plus reduction in state funding to Central Lyon and $250,000 reduction in the George-Little Rock district.

Iowa is different from other states in that the school board certifies its levy for cash flow in the general fund yearly, but must meet certain requirements to spend over that amount. Voters in a school district may authorize an Educational Improvement Program to provide additional funding in the General Fund only if the district's program costs meet a certain threshold.

"We call it spending authority, and it's kind of like a credit limit," Ackerman explained. "It's a level of control; we can't simply tax through the roof, we can only spend what our credit limit will allow."

This year's cuts have forced the Lyon County districts to examine all expenditures, Ackerman said, especially employee salaries and benefits -- which account for a majority of schools' expenses.

"We had three people retire last year, and we only replaced two positions. We're stretching people to have bigger class sizes than we've ever had before," he said, adding: "Enrollment is important in both districts. We've been growing anywhere from five to 10 students a year. We're holding steady."