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Education-equalization proposal to go before state task force

children in classroom
REUTERS/Sergio Perez
The task force is expected to release recommendations that simplify and equalize public education funding across the state.

This afternoon, the education policy agenda for the next legislative session is getting a soft roll-out in a conference room in the Roseville offices of the Minnesota Department of Education. It’s not sexy, it’s not easy to understand, and it’s utterly devoid of gimmicky items like letter grades for schools and third-grade hold-backs.

The state Education Finance Working Group will consider a series of recommendations [PowerPoint] to overhaul the impossibly complicated, uneven and unpredictable state system for funding education. Think of it as the revenge of the pocket-protector set.

Dane Smith
Dane Smith

Dane Smith is president of the think tank Growth & Justice and a member of the panel. “There are widely held concerns that the formula is too complex and too unequal,” he said in an interview yesterday. “There are too many little Band-Aids appended to it.”

A reasonable and adequate school funding stream is crucial for the state’s prosperity, he added. “There isn’t much of an alternative here,” said Smith. “Even [former Gov. and privatization proponent] Jeb Bush in Florida has said 90 percent of our work force is going to come from the public schools.”

The report the task force will discuss has been a long time in the making. Back when Gov. Mark Dayton was just one of a field of DFL gubernatorial candidates, he spent a lot of time listening to educators.

Seeking stability

More money for schools was atop their wish list, they told him, but a close second was stability. How much funding could a district count on from year to year, and how much latitude would they have to spend it on their highest priorities?

Soon after his inauguration, Dayton asked state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to appoint a panel to take up the remarkably complicated issue. In May of 2011, it delivered a 25-page set of recommendations that the Legislature’s GOP leaders had just enough time to ridicule — Rep. Pat Garofalo said the panel’s members should “grow up”—before the state shutdown.

Last summer, Cassellius and Dayton reappointed many of the same policy geeks — there are only so many people in Minnesota who know how schools are funded — to a slightly reconfigured task force [PDF] and asked it to prepare recommendations for the administration to consider as it preps for the 2013-2014 Legislature.

A statewide levy

The centerpiece is expected to be the replacement of the current hodge-podge of local school-funding levies by a statewide general education levy. The change would return a major plank in the school funding system back to the way it worked before first Gov. Jesse Ventura and then-Rep. Tim Pawlenty dismantled the so-called Minnesota Miracle.

Before that point, the state collected a uniform general education levy from property holders, which it then redistributed evenly throughout the state along with other education funds. Districts still turned to voters to ask for additional money, but more often for big-dollar projects like new facilities and not for general operating revenue.

The details are mind-numbing to mere mortals, but the upshot of the changes made a decade ago decreased the amount of school funding provided by the state. This forced more districts to ask voters to assess themselves in local levies, to increase the amount they asked for and to spend the money keeping teachers in classrooms.

It also created a wildly disparate financial playing field where wealthy districts were able to ask the owners of pricier homes for more, poor districts were unable to get anything, and districts with large amounts of commercial and industrial property enjoyed an advantage.

Revenue hasn't kept pace as costs rise

Overall school funding as a percentage of personal income has fallen by a fifth, from 5 percent to 4 percent, since the mid-1990s. Nor has the revenue stream kept pace with inflation. Meanwhile, the cost of education has spiked over the last decade as the number of poor children in the system has risen by 10 percent, said Smith.

The task force is expected to re-endorse a proposal put forth by its 2011 predecessor to even out, or “equalize,” the situation by rolling $400 of each levy into the general education fund. In short, a local tax generally considered regressive would simply be replaced by a statewide one held to be progressive. Individual property tax bills would fluctuate in the short term, but a complex system of fiscal checks and balances would smooth things.

Return of the 'miracle'

If the idea sounds familiar, it should: It is essentially the same funding fix as the 1971 Minnesota Miracle, birthed in a previous legislative stalemate and notable for making local pupils the envy of the rest of the nation for a time.

The change would also spread some balm on the wounds suffered by Minnesota’s charter schools, which have been badly damaged by an inability to borrow at government rates to compensate for the biennium’s budget-balancing 60-40 shift in state aid. They would receive the same per-pupil share of the statewide levy.

The task force is expected to put forth a number of other recommendations that would dovetail with the effort to simplify education finance, including accounting for inflation since 2003, making a critical change to the way the state handles dollars tied to special education and to integration efforts and finding a way to direct resources to early childhood education.

And acknowledging at a policy level that teachers and school administrators can’t be expected to continually do more with less might go a good ways toward restoring the willingness of educators, badly bruised by the last few legislative sessions, to consider painful reform proposals.

Much of Dayton's platform

In short, it’s much of the seven-point education policy platform Dayton unveiled a few weeks into his governorship. And there might even be a silver lining for his administration in the proposal’s wholesale rejection last year.

Mary Cecconi
Mary Cecconi

“In the past a lot of these things have been put forward but they would be difficult to implement without changing the overall tax structure,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools. “This would be the time to do it.”

Given that the first question the general public will ask is what will happen to their property-tax burden, the fact that Dayton can present it to taxpayers as one portion of a comprehensive package in which one tax can be offset by another is going to help sell the proposal, she added.

Indeed, task force members “get mad props” for deliberately not performing individual district “runs” — the calculations that show whose taxes will go up and down — choosing to focus instead on crafting a policy that makes sense.

Because lawmakers will undoubtedly do those runs right away, said Smith, it will be important to communicate that the end game is lessening reliance on a regressive tax.

“Over five years, people will notice that that portion of their property taxes that goes for schools is not going up as fast as it has,” he said. “The overall tax restructuring across the state — that’s the big show.”

Core of agenda expected

Task force members may not vote today to adopt the recommendations because several are new. And at least a couple of nay votes are expected. Still, it’s anticipated that the policy prescriptions will soon make their way onto Dayton’s and Cassellius’ desk and will form the core of the administration’s agenda at the Capitol.

If Cecconi has her way, that won’t be the end of it. As they toured the state, task force members found themselves repeatedly explaining that they were not asked to consider whether the streamlined, equalized funding system would satisfy the mandate in the state constitution that every Minnesota student receives an adequate education.

“Personally,” she said, “I think adequacy is the next step.”

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Comments (5)

Now here's some crazy talk...

There are three topics I know fairly well...and as diverse as these may be, I have sailed in deep water on each. The topics are carp, compost and state aid to education formulas….crazy talk right?

For some reason none of these topics and the related issues seem to die off and neither do I. The three keep coming back and when they surface it’s usually the same people saying the same things said over and over for umpteen years…decades. So I am back too.

Let’s take the state aid to education issue which is formula based. Remember formulas (e.g. distance = rate multiplied by time)? Remember learning about common denominators to perform math with fractions? Educators are supposed to teach this stuff, but when it comes to state aid all they know -- and that includes the policy makers and wonks -- is the "down and to the right" function.

Translated, “down and to the right” this means to look at a list of school districts and their state aid appropriation…then let your eyes wander down the list to your district to see how much aid you get. The let your eyes wander to the right and compare your district’s funding to other districts…then SCREAM, “It isn't fair!"

Then entering the debate are big powwows – taskforces – and sooner or later they begin debating the meanings of the words "equality" and "equity".

Let me cut to the chase:

”Equality” is not attainable because there is no common mathematical denominator from one district to the next. There is just the “ADM”, which is the average daily membership of students and the ADM’s need to be weighted to reflect everything from “limited English proficiency” to student busing miles and others many between the two examples.

Many have tried but failed to write a weighted-ADM formula. But like any formula properly done, it is the only fair way to cut the pie. It is “equitable” and therefore, it is fair. It does not distribute money “equally”.

The very first thing that needs to be defined

" if....equalized funding system would satisfy the mandate in the state constitution that every Minnesota student receives an adequate education"

I ask - What is our 2012 definition of an adequate education in MN? Because, I see so much spending that has so little to do with adequate education from my perspective. I would really like this defined as part of any wholesale changes to the school funding mechanism.

In the last decade, I have been feeling that the state's goal has shifted from providing a standard education to all student toward providing an education geared toward each student's education needs. I am completely comfortable in that we can come up the right funding mechanism to insure the standard education for all. I am also convince that we will never, ever, find enough money to meet the personal education needs of each individual.

So sign me up, even if it requires me to pay more taxes, to insure the basics are covered (and recovered) for all kids. But if adequate education means more individualized learning, then count me out until someone can really provide a justified cost benefit ratio for doing so.

A good start

I'm not a fan of charter schools, particularly, but am certainly willing to see their funding increase if, at the same time, predictability can be brought to the financial resources available to public school districts as a whole across the state. This seems like an excellent first step, and my property taxes are already far higher than they were in Colorado, so I'm beyond “sticker shock” in that regard.

Plus, I heartily endorse Ms. Cecconi's “next step.”

Before every kid can get an “adequate” education, her/his school has to have adequate resources, and be able to rely on those resources from one year to the next. This will move the state quite a bit in that direction, thus making interest in “adequate” education actually somewhat relevant.

A big first step

Returning to the Minnesota Miracle for funding is a huge first step in getting Minnesota education priorities straightened out. I applaud these efforts and hope they are successful. As to defining what is "fair," consider the intent: To offer as fair an education opportunity as possible across the state. To do so 100% is certainly not possible, but we could be doing far better. For instance, the cost of a computer in the hand of every student, shouldn't be a local cost. It should be a state-wide one, if we are to do everything we can to get close to the 100% goal. The same goes for internet costs and upgrades.

There also needs to be more responsible coordination with our higher education system. Every time a college adds a new high school requirement, it forces smaller schools to diminish or cancel something else to make room for the new requirement. In most cases those classes pushed aside are vocational or the arts. And while almost no one involved with the process really wants to replace the vocational or fine arts, their hands become tied without additional monies to keep them going. Without extra money from the state, some schools have had to let those courses go away. In doing so, we are adding to the disparity between schools, which is the opposite of our actual goal, if we are to keep things even and equal to the best of our ability.

With regard to education reforms that directly affect teachers, if we make sure those changes are rooted in educational research, done by reputable institutions, you won't find many teachers who would argue or disagree. The trouble is, over one hundred bills introduced in the Minnesota legislature last session had everything to do with punishing teachers, breaking unions, and generally making our public school system look bad enough so we'd want to hand it over to privateers....which has nothing to do with education reform, and everything to do with profits for Wall Street, instead.

Cost

Before you can look at levels of funding, we first must look at the drivers of cost.