Davenport school funding lawsuit dismissed

A lawsuit challenging the legality of Iowa’s school funding formula has been dismissed in district court.

The ruling highlights remaining questions as to whether education is a basic right in the state.

Former and current students of the Davenport Community School District brought the lawsuit in December, arguing the state’s funding formula creates inequities in school funding across the state.

The formula allows for some school districts to spend as much as $175 more per student. Those extra dollars can mean additional hundreds of thousands for districts’ general funds, which are used to pay for staff and curriculum needs.

On June 29, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, partly because plaintiffs asserted the formula “violates a fundamental right” to a public education.

“Whether the right to education is a fundamental right remains an open question in Iowa,” the ruling states. “… Iowa Courts do not currently recognize the right to education as a fundamental right.”

Chase Cartee of the Cartee Law Firm in Davenport, which represented the plaintiffs, said they are considering an appeal.

“I think this case is probably destined to go the Iowa Supreme Court at some point,” Cartee said. “It’s for them to decide if education is a fundamental right in Iowa or not. … They’ve never really ruled on it, (and) this might be the one.”

When it was created in the early 1970s, Iowa’s funding formula for schools sought to create more equitable funding among the state’s school districts, Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said. Before a statewide formula was created, funding varied widely among districts.

“In the early ’70s, we moved toward a school funding formula that increased state aid substantially,” Hupp said. “The change there was driven by two goals — to make sure funding was more equitable across school districts … and to protect property taxpayers.”

The state sets a funding level for all school districts — $6,591 per pupil in fiscal year 2017 — but districts that were spending more per student when the formula was created still are authorized to spend at those higher levels.

The Davenport Community School District, for example, was authorized to spend $6,591 per student, while its neighboring districts of Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley were authorized to spend $6,665 and $6,724, respectively.

In the Cedar Rapids area, the Cedar Rapids, College Community, Mount Vernon and Solon school districts also are authorized to spend at the $6,591 per pupil level. Other districts are authorized to spend more per student: Marion Independent, $6,693; Clear Creek Amana, $6,627; Iowa City, $6,608; Linn-Mar, $6,592.

The Davenport lawsuit had named the state of Iowa, the state Legislature, former Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Department of Education as defendants.

The Davenport district had “no involvement whatsoever” with the lawsuit, Superintendent Art Tate said in an email. He declined to comment further.

A spokeswoman for the school district, Dawn Saul, said the district “will move forward” despite the gap between its funding and other schools.

“There’s an inequality in the school funding formula in Iowa,” Saul said. “… Davenport and many other districts, probably about half around the state, have said, ‘Hey, we, too, would like equal funding.’”

Were the Davenport school district authorized to spend at the highest rate allowed in the state, it would have added $863,000 to its budget in fiscal year 2017.

The Iowa Department of Education filed an ethics complaint against Tate in December, Hupp said. Tate and the school board decided to dip into the district’s reserve funds to make up that difference, despite state law forbidding it.

The Board of Educational Examiners, which handles such complaints and has the authority to revoke educators’ licenses, declined a request from The Gazette for comment on the status or existence of a complaint or investigation, citing confidentiality.

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