Ragan Report

Investing in student and family success

Boosting student achievement is essential for building a high-skill, high-wage economy and strengthening Iowa's middle class.

However, it'll be hard to reach that goal if the amount our state spends per student continues to fall compared to other states. Iowa now spends $1,500 LESS per student than the national average. In just 12 months, we fell from 31st to 37th in the country when it comes to how much our state spends on each student.

Parents, teachers and school administrators want to provide a high-quality education, but local school budgets increasingly force them to offer the bare minimum.

A 6 percent increase has been proposed in basic school funding. This funding would provide an additional $196 million to buy textbooks, heat classrooms, pay salaries and purchase other day-to-day necessities that keep the school doors open. Best of all, the plan would not increase local property taxes, thanks to a special $26.2 million state appropriation.

This is something we need to vote on soon. State law requires that we decide on basic funding for the 2015-16 school year within the next couple of weeks. I'm pushing to meet the February 13 deadline and give local schools the confidence they need to set their budgets.

If we want to keep good teachers and small class sizes, we must pay for them, or Iowa risks falling farther behind other states. That is not the way to strengthen Iowa's middle class.

As we look at ways to strengthen Iowa's middle class, it makes sense that families have access to safe, affordable childcare that allows them to work, train and advance with peace of mind. This is especially important in Iowa, which ranks as one of the top states where both parents work.

Fortunately, Iowa's Child Care Assistance Programhelps many low-income working parents pursue training or career advancement by providing help paying for childcare. However, under the current program, a family is no longer eligible for childcare assistance once the household income reaches a certain threshold. Because childcare is expensive, people do the math and sometimes find themselves having to turn down a raise or higher-paying job because they'll end up losing money when their childcare assistance is abruptly cut off.

For a person making $9 per hour with a young child, more than 41 percent of their paycheck would go to childcare. The cost of childcare ends up being one of the biggest barriers to self-sufficiency and career advancement.

Representatives of the United Way and other organizations talked with legislators about how we can improve the program and help more Iowans help themselves. They say the key is to gradually reduce benefits as income increases to ensure that families have sufficient resources to continue paying for high-quality childcare.

This is a legislative column by Senator Amanda Ragan, representing Franklin, Butler and Cerro Gordo counties. For newsletters, photos and further information, go to www.senate.iowa.gov/senator/ragan.

To contact Senator Ragan during the week, call the Senate Switchboard at 515-281-3371. Otherwise she can be reached at home at 641-424-0874. E-mail her at amanda.ragan@legis.iowa.gov.

Senator Ragan is an Assistant Senate Majority Leader, chair of the Human Resources Committee and vice-chair of the Health & Human Services Budget Subcommittee. She also serves on the Appropriations, Natural Resources & Environment, Rules & Administration and Veterans Affairs committees.