Massive state underfunding has made taxpayer-approved levies an unfortunate necessity for Minnesota schools. Since a district’s ability to balance its books depends on elections, how a school district asks voters for an increase is very important.
In a perfect world, the only literature voters would need wouldn’t even be election literature:
“The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.” — Constitution of the State of Minnesota, Article 13, Section 1.
In a perfect world, Minnesota’s leaders would follow the law and support public schools. But this is not a perfect world, and Minnesota’s leaders don’t properly invest in public schools. Without a stable source of funding, teachers cannot effectively educate students year after year.
Subpar education will obviously lead to subpar educational achievement. Since high-tech businesses are one of Minnesota’s economic mainstays and our schools refresh the employee pool for these high-tech businesses, a drop in educational quality will ultimately result in less incentive for these businesses to stay in Minnesota, leaving the state among the country’s business backwaters.
Adjusted for inflation, a big drop in funding
Some may pooh-pooh these dire predictions, but the numbers don’t lie: Adjusted for inflation, state aid for schools has dropped by 13.4 percent since 2003. School districts have had to lean on levies to keep their doors open.
In the past, some school districts began their levy campaigns politely, with rallies featuring balloon animals and face painting, and then leading into campaign literature that asked voters to “support the kids.” Unfortunately, that argument isn’t effective with voters who have limited means. For them, supporting the kids in lieu of the state’s responsibility to pay for education is too expensive.
Some districts have gone the direct route, telling voters that the money would go for specific projects or would support the schools for a specific period of time. This tactic is effective but can backfire under unforeseen circumstances such as skyrocketing fuel prices.
Then there is the veiled threat. This tactic was used recently week when an exurb district sent budget information to district residents. The district — which lost a levy election last year — listed its budget cuts: 13 teachers, an administrator, a couple of secretaries and custodians, honors classes, all-day, every-day kindergarten in two schools and elementary band and choir. The literature then listed in exhaustive detail the exact amount of money lost and what will be cut if a new levy isn’t passed.
The message? If increases aren’t approved, programs like elementary band and employees like custodians will be cut.
Districts should lay out what’s coming
Residents need to hear not only where state underfunding has taken the district, but where it will go. School districts are dying of thirst, and our exurb example needs to show voters what is coming next.
The exurb levy leaders need to point out that as a result of the failed levy in 2007, the district laid off 13 teachers, moving class sizes well past what is needed for a quality education.
They need to point out what is happening in other school districts across the state:
• Osseo has closed two schools and laid off 161 teachers;
• Brainerd has cut 25 percent of its faculty;
• MACCRAY can’t afford to have five days of school each week;
• Crosby-Ironton can’t afford an athletics program and relies on parents to beg and borrow cash for sports.
They need to say that districts have cut all they can cut and a levy increase will keep their district from being flushed down the state’s education finance toilet.
School finance is at great peril, but Minnesotans are weary of cries that the sky is falling only to learn that elementary band has been the main victim.
Educators keep looking to St. Paul for a financial miracle. Since 2003, there has been no financial miracle. Due to “no new taxes” ideology, there is no new revenue for schools, except for the money out of the pockets of cash-strapped property taxpayers.
State policymakers should be ashamed that we are in this situation. But we are, and it requires us to ask property taxpayers for money. Minnesotans will not respond to polite requests or veiled threats. They must be told of the sorry state of education funding, and they must know where their district is headed.
John Fitzgerald is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on its website.