Iowa's education system has not allocated funds equally


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A state-issued audit last week has brought the Iowa Department of Education under scrutiny in regards to funding allocations to nearly 40 public school districts.

And now, the department has started to question its own factors used when allocating nearly $67 million to preschool and at-risk elementary-school programs.

The Oct. 10 assessment disclosed that funds spent on Iowa schools are not distributed on a merit-based or competitive system, but rather one that awards money to schools that have traditionally received the state-funded grants.

The programs targeted in the audit are composed of the Shared Visions Preschool Program and the Early Education Innovative, or At-Risk K-3, grants.

According to the audit, Shared Visions provides funding to create a combination of preschool and full-day kindergarten programs for at-risk children age 3 to 5.

The department defines an “at-risk student” as one “who needs additional support and who is not meeting or not expected to meet the established goals of the educational program.” They include but are not limited to homeless children and youth, and potential, returning, or current dropouts.

Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Education Department, said 36 districts continued to receive grants since 2006.

At-Risk K-3 Grants require that money go to school districts whose elementary schools have a large percentage of at-risk students as well as a high number of low-income families.

Grants were usually awarded to 36 school districts, and the evaluation process to determine if they needed the funding did not occur.

The Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines public-school systems were among the recipients.

In Iowa City, Mann, Twain, and Hills Elementary received a combination of $263,556 through the state-funded grants.

In contrast, the Cedar Rapids School District received more than three times the amount, $892,118.

Lately, the state realized that some adjustments needed to be made in the distribution process, Hupp said, especially in light of the recent audit.

“[We had] a fair review of these programs, and the findings are driving us in a direction we’ve already wanted to go,” she said.

Steps include making the competitive cycle for At-Risk K-3 Grants annual and providing greater access to statewide voluntary preschool programs, which would provide more access to quality preschools for kids across Iowa.

“This is something that kind of fell through the cracks … I really think there needs to be more accountability,” Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said, noting that she would like to see accountability from the district level as well.

Rep. Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny, said he was disappointed with the way the department handled the distribution of funds to preschool programs.

“We missed the opportunity to get the biggest bang for our buck this year,” Koester said. “It’s important that with limited money going to preschools that we reach the area with the most need.”

Hupp said the district was reluctant to change the system earlier because of budget cuts.

“[There was a] concern that schools would shut down if [the grants] didn’t continue to run programs,” Hupp said. “We didn’t want to shut off access.”

The department was initially concerned with providing money to Head Start programs because officials felt the programs wouldn’t be able to compete adequately with other programs, she said.

However, unintentionally, this process may have passed over some districts that did not qualify for the money.

“We’ve always wanted broader access to programs, it’s just that when the grant programs were set up, we had a little bit of difficulty spreading them out because of budget cuts,” she said.

Iowa City School  Board member Tuyet Dorau said she is unfamiliar with this particular audit but thinks the School District is thriving and is more than willing to accept any extra help the state is willing to provide. This is especially true, she added, as Iowa City is one of eight largest growing school districts in the state.

“I do know that our district is a district that serves a very diverse population, and the funds we do bring in are used as efficiently as possible,” Dorau said. “There is a great need in our district.”

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