When the school aid formula used by the Iowa Legislature to disburse state funds to local public schools was introduced in the early 1970s, it was intended to assist districts that could not properly fund themselves based on property tax dollars. The state created a cost per pupil to ensure that districts received that amount for each student.

It was an attempt to guarantee that all Iowa students receive an equal education.

Now, nearly 50 years later, legislators, superintendents and lobbyists say the formula is outdated and creates a major disparity in the level of education Iowa students receive.

Many districts are unable to provide the same level of education, opportunity and resources as their neighbors, a collaborative investigation by IowaWatch and Iowa Public Radio revealed. That’s because some districts are granted the ability to spend more than the set district cost per pupil, while others cannot. Moreover, the formula doesn’t take into account differences in transportation costs for rural districts, the investigation showed.

“If we believe that all kids need to be treated equally, then the funding needs to be distributed equally,” Centerville Superintendent Tom Rubel said. Rubel leads a district in southern Iowa that has 1,335 students. It covers 165 square miles, a lot smaller than a neighboring district – Davis County — that covers more than 450 square miles. 

“If you have higher transportation costs in a district than opposed to a neighboring district, you are at a deficit at a certain degree in money that could be put into classrooms,” Rubel said.

This past legislative session a bill introduced to address both the transportation cost differences and the disparity in what districts can spend on education per student, made it through the full Senate and House Education Committee. However, the House Appropriations Committee did not take up the bill, SF 455.

State legislators IowaWatch interviewed said Iowa’s economy needs to improve before changing how school districts are funded, leaving many districts burdened by extra costs and less money.

Tale of two districts

Davis County Community School District in Bloomfield, with an enrollment of about 1,170 students — the official count for school formula purposes was 1,175.9 — in 2015, is one of many that could have benefited from SF 455. The bill would have allowed Davis County to spend more per student and receive assistance for its high transportation costs.

When passed in the 1970s, the school aid formula elevated all districts to the set district cost per pupil. But districts that had been spending more than that amount were allowed to continue doing so. The Davis County district was not one of those allowed to spend more.

In 2015 Iowa’s district cost per pupil was set at $6,446. But by being grandfathered in, 171…