Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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John Gunyou: Why has state stopped investing in education?

April 21, 2004

Nicole Gunyou is a teacher. Like her great-grandmother four score and seven years earlier, my firstborn has chosen to make a difference in the lives of children.

Not so her father. Thirty years ago, I learned firsthand that teaching is not a profession for the faint of heart. That earlier epiphany was recently reconfirmed when I prepared Nicole's tax return.

My pride for her commitment quickly dissolved into a concern that she barely makes enough to support herself, much less a future family of her own. And even more troubling, I discovered that Nicole had spent $1,512 of her own money to buy classroom books and supplies.

There's something very wrong about that. Why should a person entrusted to guide our next generation into responsible citizenship find it necessary to dip so deeply into her own shallow pockets?

Perhaps the more troubling question is: Why has Minnesota stopped investing in education?

Generations of our political and business leaders have understood that education is a sound investment. To compete on the world stage, Minnesota needs highly educated entrepreneurs and workers. It's the ticket to our individual and collective futures.

Over a decade ago, during the state's last budget crisis, the Carlson administration respected that reality. While permanently solving a 12 percent budget gap, we also provided the largest funding boost for early childhood education in our state's history, and continued our commitment to K-12 education with 4.5 percent annual increases. As the economy recovered, we also restored our investments in Minnesota's colleges.

Returning financial stability to Minnesota and continuing those critical investments enabled a decade of quality public services, job growth and tax rebates. In short, our strategy worked.

And now, that's all changed. Instead of continuing to invest in our state's future, we're sacrificing it.

Minnesota's long tradition of responsible stewardship is being replaced by an ideology of disinvestment. We've abandoned the moderate fiscal and economic policies that have served our state so well, and have replaced that successful strategy with a single-minded allegiance to the god of lower taxes.

Taxes aren't some inherent evil to be exorcized. They're simply the price of government. Taxes pay for everything from investments in our schools and colleges, to police and fire services, to the public infrastructure we need to support a healthy economy.

To keep that price affordable, taxes must stay in line with our personal income and community needs. The fact of the matter is, the price of government has been going down over the past decade. That's right, even before all the no-new-tax pledges, our state and local governments were taking a smaller share money out of our pockets to provide all those essential investments and services.

Taxes are not out of control. We can afford to invest in Minnesota.

In fact, we can't afford not to invest in our state's future. Minnesota's leaders didn't follow a high-tax, high-investment strategy for the past century and a half because they were screaming Socialists. They used that formula because it worked. It enabled our frozen flyover state to prosper.

Unfortunately, we're now disinvesting in our state's one true competitive advantage -- education. And worst of all, we're not even having an honest debate about what's happening. Instead of courageously confronting the real challenges, our state leaders are consumed with a passel of social issues that won't make a whit of difference to Minnesota's fiscal and economic future.

Even more troubling, our leaders are pandering to the lowest common denominator by placing individual interests over the community good. The same people who graduate from tax-subsidized colleges hypocritically sign no-tax pledges, and then shamelessly play to the people who vote against school referendums as soon as their own children are no longer in school.

Two years ago, our state leaders negligently promised to take over school funding without any way to pay for that huge future commitment. Then they promptly doubled the crisis by making irresponsible short-term decisions to temporarily plug the resulting gap. Last year they froze state funding, rather than increase taxes to pay for their past indulgences.

The implications for education are staggering. For the first time in our state's history, funding for both schools and colleges will go down for the next three years in a row. Despite all their hollow rhetoric, our state leaders didn't "protect education," they sacrificed it on the altar of no-new-taxes.

And here's the dirtiest little secret of all: Even after all those cuts, they still haven't fixed the state's budget problem. Minnesota still faces a billion-dollar deficit, right after this fall's elections.

That means, even with a strong economic recovery, the cuts in education will have to accelerate. It's not the economy that's threatening Minnesota's future; it's a systematic policy of disinvestment.

Nicole Gunyou hopes to still be a teacher next year. Like thousands of teachers, parents and students throughout our state, she's waiting to see who survives the latest round of layoffs in what's now become a perennial ritual.

It's a simple question that deserves an honest answer from our state leaders: Why has Minnesota stopped investing in education?

John Gunyou is Minnetonka's city manager. He was Minnesota's finance commissioner under Gov. Arne Carlson.