Democratic lawmakers vowed Thursday to fight for more Iowa school aid, saying superintendents have told them that a funding freeze would lead to widespread layoffs and larger classes.
The Republican-controlled House approved a measure Tuesday that would freeze basic state aid for public education for the next two years, and it has Republican Gov. Terry Branstad's support.
But Democrats who control the Senate said they sent a questionnaire to the state's 358 school superintendents, and 80 percent of the 259 who responded said the freeze would force them to lay off teachers.
"We think that's absolutely outrageous and we're going to fight this very hard," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. "The facts are clear: No growth in state aid to local schools would be devastating to local students."
Gronstal told reporters the Senate likely will approve a 2 percent increase for schools next week. The House has not refused to give schools any new money. Although members approved the funding freeze, they also voted to give schools an additional $47 million to prevent some property tax increases. A 2 percent increase in basic school aid would give districts about $65 million more, Gronstal said.
"We're sending our members home over the weekend to talk with local school officials," he said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said more money for schools isn't unreasonable when the state is expected to have a surplus at the end of this budget year and there are signs the economy is improving.
"We can balance the state budget without freezing funding for our schools and leaving our kids out in the cold," McCarthy said.
Republicans largely rejected the argument, saying lawmakers still face some tough decisions in putting together next year's budget, and there's no reason for schools to be exempt from cost-saving measures.
"I understand there are some superintendents who are disappointed with zero percent," said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. "There are very few state agencies or programs that are going to end up with no change, and I think we're going to see a whole lot of them with less money."
Paulsen didn't dispute school officials' claim that there would be layoffs, noting that hundreds of state workers are facing unemployment because of the budget crunch.
"We get that there's a pinch, we're not blind to that," Paulsen said. "There are opportunities for them to create more rigorous programs, programs that can be operated more efficiently."
Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, said voters elected Republicans in the November because they want a leaner state government.
"We have to learn to live within our means," he said.