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.

1/03/2005

Time to Get to Work!

StarTribune Editorial: K-12 education/Live up to the promise
January 4, 2005



About four of every 10 Minnesota budget dollars go to educate the state's nearly 900,000 schoolchildren. At just over $11 billion, the K-12 budget is the single largest among state agencies. So with all that cash -- and some local referendum dollars to boot -- why are so many school districts imposing fees, reducing programs and laying off staff?

They are hurting financially because the state has failed to keep pace with the rising costs and changing demands of a good educational system. Four years ago, the governor and Legislature said the state would take on about 80 percent of public education costs to ease the education burden on local property taxes. But lawmakers have yet to fulfill that promise; in fact the state backpedaled more than it moved forward.

During the first couple of years after the shift, funding remained essentially flat. But school costs and expenses didn't, resulting in severe budget reductions for many districts. Then the state adopted school funding bills that pretended inflation didn't exist, again squeezing local districts. And last year, as state leaders wrestled with a billion-plus deficit, about $200 million was trimmed from K-12.

Students and their families have been squeezed enough. It is time for state leaders, especially Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to step up and complete the business of properly funding schools. The governor has said recently that he is willing to devote more resources to K-12 education. We hope he is serious and is talking about funding in a meaningful way.

It won't be good enough to devote token nickels and dimes on smaller initiatives such as the ones he has highlighted in the past. A few bucks here or there on pilot programs to restructure teacher pay won't help districts maintain reasonable class sizes or hang on to much-needed staff.

At a minimum, state leaders should add inflationary increases to the basic per-pupil formula. At about 2 percent, that would amount to about $400 million over the biennium. That increase should not be made at the expense of other good programs in health and human services or local government aid -- robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an answer; it is an abdication of responsibility.

Another leftover K-12 matter is restoration of the nearly $200 million that was cut from the learning budget during the last legislative cycle. That might seem like small potatoes out of an $11 billion budget, but that little amount had big consequences. As districts are under increased pressure to improve achievement, those budget bites pulled the plug on several programs specifically for struggling student populations. Minneapolis had to discontinue after-school service for several thousand youngsters before the school year ended. Some suburban school systems scaled back or eliminated all-day kindergarten. Head Start and other early education programs took hits, too -- at the same time research was confirming that quality preschool gives students an academic edge and that every dollar spent on early education yields many dollars in return for society.

Back in November, Minnesota voters turned several Republican House members out of office, in part because of unhappiness with the state of K-12 affairs. Pawlenty and House leaders should listen to their voices and do the right thing by Minnesota students.