At a time of massive state budget surplus, it’s a moral imperative to adequately fund public schools


A recent item on my Pella Community Schools board agenda read, “Board acts on termination notices.” It was a jarring potential conclusion to a proposed million-dollar budget reduction in my school district.

Though budget reductions are not new in my many years as a school board member, I can see and feel the pain of our staff in this place of uncertainty.

State Supplemental Aid over the last 10 years has failed to keep pace with inflation, leading us toward a leaner budget. With a significant decline in enrollment this year, in part due to Education Savings Account transfers to private schools, we are faced with reducing our budget.

At the same time, like many other districts, our needs for struggling children who fall in the gap between regular and special education have increased. The implementation of an innovative initiative to serve these students, our Student Success Program, has shown great promise, but we cannot go backward because of inadequate funding. We need adequate State Supplemental Aid and equity in At-Risk funding in order to provide support programs for struggling students.

Schools need state aid to help struggling students

Iowa Administrative Code 281-12.2(256) defines at-risk children as “any identified student who needs additional support and who is not meeting or not expected to meet the established goals of the educational program (academic, personal/social, career/vocational).”

Districts across Iowa who receive At-Risk funding are capped at disparate levels. Our district is capped at 2.5% of our district’s regular program cost, while a neighboring district receives 5% of their district’s regular program cost. Last legislative season, Senate File 246, the Equalization of Dropout Prevention/At Risk funding, was introduced to phase in equalization over several years, but the bill died out of concerns for a potential property tax increase. Whether through a new state categorical fund, increased SSA or a plan to equalize At-Risk funding, school districts need a mechanism to create and maintain novel programs for children at risk of educational failure.

I worry about all areas of our district that may be negatively impacted by a budget reduction, but I have particular angst as we navigate the complexities of retaining and potentially expanding our program developed to help struggling students. In the past few years, our needs in serving emotionally dysregulated children have grown, necessitating new approaches and more dedicated staff.

“Dysregulated” is a term used to describe children who show disrespect, defiance/insubordination, non-compliance, disruption, physical contact, inappropriate language/threats, material and property misuse, dress code infractions, technology violations, cheating/lying, threats or leaving a building or classroom. Our district’s student support staff have developed a sophisticated system of assistance for dysregulated children and detailed protocols for assisting them, including reminders, teaching/reteaching expected behaviors, removal from situations, and restorative practices. These efforts are working.

Private schools do not have to serve struggling students

This is the crux of it all: Private schools can decide if a child fits their mission. In public schools, they ALL fit our mission. We are the entity tasked with educating ALL children, including those who fall in the gap, without adequate targeted funding. These include children who struggle with executive function skills, (paying attention, organizing materials, planning, regulating emotions, starting and completing tasks), dysregulated children, and those with mental health struggles.

A private school has the option to disenroll a child who does not fit their mission. Public schools do not have that option. We need to honor ALL children by preserving the systems in place that serve them, namely public schools, and by appropriating adequate funds so we can serve kids with significant needs. Imagine the lifelong impact of strategic interventions to teach children how to manage their emotions, organize themselves, and self-reflect how their words and actions affect others.

Public schools are the entity tasked with excellent education for all, therefore, it is incumbent on our Legislature to assure our outstanding public schools across the state have adequate funds to serve the very children we are bound to serve, including those in the gap who do not qualify for special education, yet have great needs. At a time of incredible state budget surplus, I see that as a moral imperative.

Joan Corbin is in her 19th year of service on the Pella Community School Board. She is an appointed member of the Iowa Public Information Board and is past president of the Iowa Association of School Boards. She previously worked in early childhood special education as a home interventionist and classroom teacher. This column is reprinted here from Iowa Capital Dispatch under a Creative Commons License.