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Setting Iowa’s table


The problems facing Iowa were crystallized last week in the Legislature’s disappointing response to Gov. Tom Vilsack’s call to make education one of the cornerstones of the state’s economic development efforts. Too tight-fisted with the money schools need to pay good teachers more competitively and thus retain them, the Legislature based its school funding bill on the foggy, outdated notion that companies and young workers will flock to the state if its taxes are kept artificially low through tight controls on spending.

Recruiters for big employers say otherwise, that quality-of-life issues interest companies more than the competitiveness of a state’s tax structures and young professionals more than high salaries. They want recreational and cultural opportunities to occupy their leisure time. They want clean water. They want hot jobs. But more than any of those amenities, they want good schools for their children.

It’s not only shortsighted but also incorrect to describe “fiscal responsibility” in terms of spending restraint and static or declining tax rates. The Legislature’s failure to adequately fund education is a true definition of fiscal irresponsibility. Schools should look for budget cuts outside of teacher layoffs and consider efficiencies that can be gained through consolidation and sharing, but a paltry 2 percent allowable growth increase leaves little room for creativity.

Vilsack has promised to veto the bill. He’s right to do so. The legislation is an embarrassment to a state that has consistently bragged to the rest of the nation that its public school system is unparalleled in excellence. Yet as teacher salaries continue a downward spiral to No. 35 in the nation, how can Iowa expect to attract and retain its best and brightest educator?

Iowa is in a better position than most states to make targeted spending increases as part of an over-arcing focus on economic development. The argument raised for increased school funding – that it’s important to plan the menu and set the table before everyone shows up for dinner – also could be made regarding the funding of cultural attractions.

We’ve all had those vacations, a few days in a city that was so alive with sights and sounds, smells and tastes that they become permanently anchored in our memories and rise up at the smooth sound of jazz, the bite of ethnic spices, the smell of a street vendor’s cart or the aesthetic beauty of art. It’s not the low tax structure that makes us want to return to those places, but what the taxes have been able to stimulate and provide.

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