Education Funding

Iowa Is Laboratory for Federal Role In Building Schools

By Joetta L. Sack — October 24, 2001 8 min read
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The teachers at Decatur City Elementary School had become accustomed to the eccentricities of their 1915-era building. Despite its sloping concrete floors, its basement room used as both a gym and a cafeteria, and its out-of-the-way location, some admit they’d even grown fond of this little block-shaped, brick schoolhouse.

Sentimentality aside, leaders of the Central Decatur schools here on southern Iowa’s rolling plains knew the structure was impractical and potentially dangerous. So they raised local funds to add a wing to the district’s secondary school, making room for the elementary school’s staff and 115 pupils.

To help the cause, the district received a $500,000 federal grant through a program earmarked for Iowa districts that was created in 1997 at the behest of the state’s Democratic U.S. senator, Tom Harkin.

While Washington lawmakers were debating whether the federal government should wade into school construction aid, the veteran senator used his considerable influence to set up a “demonstration project” in his Midwestern state. Now in its fourth year, the program has channeled $37 million to the state, and the 750-student Central Decatur district and other Iowa school systems are seeing the rewards.

The program could be construed as pork, yet another example of a powerful lawmaker feathering his political nest by bringing home the maximum number of federal tax dollars. Iowa, after all, does not qualify as the state most in need of school construction help, according to recent data.

But Sen. Harkin, who chairs the subcommittee on education, labor, and health of the Senate Appropriations Committee, speaks proudly of the program’s success. And with Congress at odds over whether to continue a much larger school renovation program begun in the just-ended 2001 fiscal year, the senator contends that the Iowa program is proof that money for school buildings should remain in the federal government’s portfolio.

Nobody questions the need for school repairs and renovations nationwide; estimates range from $112 billion to $250 billion or more to bring all school facilities to basic levels, and nearly every district has seen problems with overcrowding or decaying buildings. Mr. Harkin’s program in Iowa gives grants for emergency repairs or new construction.

“The most pressing needs are the schools that need to be brought up to fire and safety codes,” Sen. Harkin said last week. “And then, we just have a lot of old schools in Iowa, like a lot of states do, that need to be rebuilt or totally refurbished.”

In the final days of last year’s appropriations process, the senator—then the ranking minority member on the subcommittee he now chairs—helped win approval of the national program, which is based on his Iowa experiment. The fiscal 2001 budget included $1.2 billion for emergency repairs.

Now, Congress must decide whether to continue the national program and the Iowa grants. As the fiscal 2002 appropriations bills make their way through the process this year, the version passed by the now- Democratic-controlled Senate appropriations committee includes continuation of the funding, at about 80 percent of the 2001 level, while the House version eliminates it.

President Bush favors eliminating the school renovation funds.

“School construction is an area where the federal government does not have a meaningful role, and never did,” said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

The administration has, however, proposed a new facilities program for charter schools and wants to drastically increase construction funding for schools under the impact-aid program. Impact aid sends federal grants to school districts whose property-tax bases are directly affected by the presence of nontaxable federal facilities, such as military bases.

Appropriators won’t decide whether to continue the Iowa program until the two bills reach a House-Senate conference committee. But a Senate Democratic aide said that Sen. Harkin, because of his seniority and influence, is always granted a pot of money to spend as he chooses, and the program likely will continue.

“If he wants it, he’ll get it,” the aide said.

Tending to Constituents

Mr. Harkin, who has named the school construction program the “Harkin grants,” often hosts back-home events on concerns such as education, health care, and agriculture.

“The image we see here is that he’s involved in education a lot,” said Joseph S. Drips, the superintendent of the 4,700-student Southeast Polk district in the Des Moines suburbs, which also received a Harkin grant.

A report released last year by the National Education Association, a strong proponent of federal aid for school construction, ranked Iowa 25th among the states in school modernization needs, with a total estimate of $3.9 billion for infrastructure and technology needs.

Iowa has seen an economic downturn and declining population in recent years, which have squeezed its budget. And the state has seen its center of gravity shift from farms to more urban areas, meaning that some urban districts are facing unprecedented growth while some rural districts struggle to stay open.

“The needs generally run across the board,” said Marcus J. Haack, the associate executive director of School Administrators of Iowa. While the money from the Harkin grants has helped, his group advocates a more comprehensive overhaul of school finance.

Now nearing the end of his third term in the Senate, Mr. Harkin has become a fixture as one of the Democrats’ more liberal members. But he represents a state almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans—Al Gore took the state in the presidential race last year by just 4,144 votes. Mr. Harkin won his last election, in 1996, with only 52 percent of the vote.

Programs such as the school construction grants could be his lifeline to elected office, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. Although some Iowa voters have qualms about his views, they are pleased the senator brings so much money back to the state, Mr. Jennings said.

“What he has done is balance his liberalism with great attention to constituent needs,” said Mr. Jennings, who is a former aide to House Democrats.

But Sen. Harkin also has consistently pushed for a nationwide school construction program. He first proposed a plan during his unsuccessful 1992 presidential campaign, and since then, has joined other Democrats—and a few Republicans—who have proposed various approaches.

While the issue has gained momentum in recent years, with hundreds of educators lobbying for such a plan, there is still plenty of opposition in Washington. Most conservatives say that school construction should remain a state and local responsibility.

Some legislators argue that if the federal government steps up its funding, state and local governments will just set aside less for school construction, and nothing additional will get built. Furthermore, bureaucratic red tape and laws requiring that federally financed construction projects pay union-level wages could drive up total costs, critics say.

Matching Funds

Hoping to quell some of those concerns, Sen. Harkin designed his program to require local districts to bring money to the table for new construction projects.

The competitive grants require communities to prove they can pay for 75 percent of a project, thus keeping most of the obligation local. Districts can receive up to $500,000 for school construction projects. Another portion of funds is reserved for the most urgent fire-safety repairs, and districts can apply for up to $250,000 without a match.

Under the national program, the $1.2 billion was given to states with instructions to distribute it to poor districts that could show the greatest need for repairs.

Sen. Harkin and other Democrats argue that by requiring districts to provide the bulk of the money, school construction and renovation remain local and state obligations.

According to the senator, the initial $28 million dispensed in the Iowa program’s first three years leveraged $311 million in local funding for repairs and new construction. And although those funds might have been raised without an incentive, he believes the Harkin grants made the difference in persuading some communities to go forth with a project.

“It’s proven that a little bit of money can go a long way,” Mr. Harkin said. “When you can get one federal dollar to leverage $10 in state and local funds, that’s a pretty good use of federal money.”

Some Left Behind

Many Iowa districts are still using the traditional three-story, red-brick buildings like Decatur City Elementary School that were constructed in nearly every small town in the state at the beginning of the last century. The Southeast Polk district will soon use its $500,000 Harkin grant to replace one of those buildings that engineers unexpectedly deemed to be unsound.

“The final report was, ‘get out as soon as you can,’” said Mr. Drips, the superintendent.

A new building did not figure into the district’s carefully crafted 10-year building plan, but Mr. Drips and school board members realized it would be more economical to build a new facility than try to renovate the old building.

Formerly a rural community, Southeast Polk is now seeing its cornfields become middle-class subdivisions, and its enrollment has increased by about 125 students annually in recent years. To help manage that growth, the district’s residents passed a 1-cent local sales tax that generates about $4 million a year.

Without that revenue, the district would not have been able to meet the grants’ match requirement. That requirement sometimes leaves behind the neediest schools if they are unable to raise funds locally, Mr. Drips said.

Sen. Harkin, though, said the local matching requirement was key to retaining local control, and that cash-poor districts could still apply for the emergency grants. Meanwhile, he said, Iowa districts can count on the federal aid for the near future—and he’s going to fight to continue the national program as well.

“It has been such a resounding success in Iowa, and our needs are so great, that I intend to keep it,” he said. “After 10 years of beating on this, I’m finally getting people to realize that there is a federal role and we can do this while retaining local control.”

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