Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

Minnbest is a non-partisan, broad based coalition of parents, educators and school advocacy groups who believe excellent public education is a foundation of democracy in America.


This is not good news

Britt Robson is a good friend of public education, but like all good friends, he is not afraid to tell us the truth.

Schoolz Suck

New numbers show public education in Minnesota trending down, down, down

by Britt Robson

For as far back as most of us can remember, Minnesotans have been smug about their schools--and for palpable reason, since education is invariably cited as a main reason this frozen prairie has fostered one of the nation's most robust state economies. But this long legacy of extraordinary investments in public education has been eroding steadily for more than a decade now.

Front-page headlines in last Thursday's editions of both metro dailies trumpeted the results of a state-by-state comparison of education spending conducted by the national publication Education Week. It revealed that per-student expenditures on education in Minnesota increased just 1.2 percent from 2001 to 2002, far below the national average of 4.9 percent. The state likewise was below the national average in per-pupil spending increases between 1992 and 2002. According to the magazine, that drops Minnesota to 23rd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of money spent to educate each student in 2001-2002 (the latest comparative data available).

If that decidedly mediocre ranking isn't sobering enough, consider that Education Week weighs geographical factors when calibrating a state's education spending. According to the raw numbers from the unweighted Census of Governments website, Minnesota spent $7,691 per student in fiscal year 2002, which is less than the national average of $7,701. The state looks even more penurious when education spending is measured as a percentage of personal income--a relevant comparison, given that you can't hire a teacher in Minnesota for the same amount as in a low-income state such as, say, Mississippi. Again using data from the Census of Governments, Minnesota spent just 3.9 percent of its personal income on elementary and secondary school education, placing it 38th among the 50 states. (The national average is 4.2 percent.)

This declining commitment to education is not some blip to be recouped easily in coming years; it reflects an accelerating trend in the state. During the most recent five-year period for which national data is available, 1997 to 2002, Minnesota's rate of growth in per-pupil spending ranked 45th in the country (46th if D.C. is included), according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. And that statistical snapshot reflects no reckoning with the unprecedented ravages wreaked upon the state's education budget since 2002 by the Pawlenty administration and its slash-and-burn cronies at the Capitol.

Pawlenty has pledged that classroom education would be "held harmless" in the 2004-05 biennial budget. Instead, for the first time in modern state history, fewer dollars--$185 million fewer--were allocated to education than in the previous budget. The damage is exacerbated by the fact that this is occurring at precisely the time when the state has replaced local governments as the primary funding source for schools. Based on the state's November 2004 forecast, and using the "unofficial" inflation index deployed by state economists (for official purposes the state, unlike school administrators, can pretend inflation doesn't exist when confecting its budget), the total amount of E-12 spending in Minnesota will decline by 5.2 percent in 2004-05 compared with the previous biennium. And without various funding shifts--including the passage of local school referenda to help ease the blow--the decline would be 7.1 percent. When you look up Minnesota's per-pupil spending in future state-by-state comparisons, you'll save time by starting at the bottom.

Pawlenty has been at least partially able to obscure his abandonment of public education with tough talk about the need for "accountability." The implication is that he'd be willing to allocate more money if only he could be certain that the money would be well spent. Well, let's see: According to Education Week, while Minnesota ranks 23rd in total dollars spent per pupil, its test scores land up among the top eight states in the nation in math and reading among both fourth- and eighth-graders.

Scrounging for bad news with which to tar schoolteachers and administrators, Pawlenty and his since-deposed commissioner of education, Cheri Pierson Yecke, were always quick to point out the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. And indeed, the Education Week figures show Minnesota with a 34-point gap in the test scores of those demographics, substantially more than the 22-point gap nationally. But it is hard to take the governor's concern seriously when most of the $185 million he hacked from education came from areas of the budget either specifically or disproportionately designed to assist nonwhite students, including compensatory aid, limited English proficiency, special education, after-school programs, summer school, alternative schools, and the teachers of color program. (Although they are not specifically part of the general education budget, you could throw in Early Childhood Family Education programs and Head Start too.)

You can't blame school administrators for suspecting that all this talk about accountability is a demagogic bait and switch, given how the politicians keep changing the standards. "The last big reform they enacted, Profile of Learning, was repealed before it could take effect," says Jim Grathwol, director of government relations for the Minneapolis Public Schools. "Before that it was 'outcome-based education.' Now it's No Child Left Behind. The state says it wants reform. But how we negotiate contracts, who we negotiate with, and how much we have to negotiate with are all set by statute. At some point maybe the strategy should be to let one or two of these reforms stay in place and then try funding them."

Instead, Pawlenty keeps up his political tap dance, throwing out superficial proposals passed off as fundamental reforms. Remember his plan to reward a handful of "superteachers" with $100,000 contracts? Last year he wanted to relax the standards for setting up charter schools; this year his new education commissioner is proposing that the charter school standards be toughened. His latest splash, unveiled at an October press conference, was to promote "value-added" accountability standards (something already being done in Minneapolis) and to endorse some teacher-quality initiatives proposed by the national Teaching Commission comprised of education and business leaders.

Given that Education Week dispensed a D+ to Minnesota for its "efforts to improve teacher quality," some reforms are certainly appropriate. But once again, a few of Pawlenty's proposals are already being implemented at various schools around the state. What is notable about all of them is that they don't commit very much money.

One prominent recommendation by the Teaching Commission given short shrift by the governor is that "base pay [for teachers] needs to be increased to make teaching more competitive with other professions." According to information from the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, using figures from the state and the National Education Association, the average private sector wages in Minnesota increased by 51 percent from 1992 to 2002. Wages for the average government worker during that period increased by 34 percent. But for teachers, wages rose just 28 percent in that span.

It is not an exaggeration to say that our ongoing lack of commitment to public education is jeopardizing the future health of this state. "In 1970, Minnesota was 22nd in the nation in per capita income. In 2002, we were seventh," says Senator Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins), who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "States ahead of us are Connecticut, which is a giant bedroom community for New York City, and Virginia, which has the nation's capital right next door. We haven't had those advantages. We've done it by investing in education."

"We are no longer poised on the threshold of the information economy--we are in it," Grathwol says. "And the winner in that economy is the community that gets the most citizens educated to the point where they can participate in that information economy. It is not a time to withdraw from funding education."