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Truth about schools’ need for levies shouldn’t be sugarcoated

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 08/20/2008 - 07:28 am.

    Our public school system is broken, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Yes Ron, there needs to be real accountability for teachers the same way you and I are held accountable in our jobs. On that point, we agree.

    Vouchers may be an option, but the state’s Constitution is clear that a large part of the responsibility for public education lies at the legislature. A voucher for a kid in rural northwest Minnesota isn’t going to give them any realistic options other than their school district that is struggling to survive. In the metro, its a different story, but there are many parts of this state where public schools are the only viable option. In addition, when unfunded federal mandates are passed on a bipartisan basis like No Child Left and are dumped on the doorstep of the Capitol, that job is made all the more difficult.

    Finally, as to your ongoing barbs about Obama and private schools: I wouldn’t enroll my worst enemy’s pet iguana in the DC public schools. If you have never seen them, they are a disaster. Of those Members of Congress who have moved their family to the DC area, I would be real interested to see if there are ANY members of Congress from either party whose children are enrolled in DC public schools–or ANY public school–in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area. I don’t know myself, but I’m willing to bet that it is a very small number.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/20/2008 - 03:56 pm.

    Wow. Where to start with this?

    “Massive state underfunding has made taxpayer-approved levies an unfortunate necessity for Minnesota schools.”

    Public education consumes 41% of the total state budget each biennium, that currently amounts more than $22 BILLION dollars…massively underfunded, you say?

    In Saint Paul and Minneapolis, our investment in each student comes to more than $12,000.00 per year….massively underfunded, you say?

    What does adequate funding look like, I wonder?

    Just how much does it cost to graduate more than the 56% that MPS and SPPS have managed to eke out for the past ten years?

    Once, just once, I wish a defender of the status quo had the guts to answer that simple question.

    “In a perfect world, Minnesota’s leaders would follow the law and support public schools.”

    That is a very succinct accusation, so I’ll ask an equally succinct question: According the law, which precluded that asinine statement, in what way, exactly, are “Minnesota’s leaders” failing to support public schools Mr. Fitzgerald?

    Teachers union bylaws and wishes notwithstanding.

    The hubris you display here Mr. Fitzgerald is absolutely breath taking.

    The fact is that despite our massive “investment” in public education, 25% of public school students that show up for college (the cream of the crop) require remedial coursework in basic academic subjects such as math and reading.

    The fact is that despite our massive “investment” the public schools send thousands of kids out to face a future of massive failure as functional illiterates.

    The fact is that only once in the past thirty years has our massive “investment” the public schools remained neutral. 2003 was the first year that our massive investment was not increased by at least 2.5%..yes, adjusted for inflation.

    And still the teachers union and their politically motivated lackey’s have the unmitigated gall to point their fingers at the taxpayers.

    The fact is, Mr. Fitzgerald, that stakeholders are sick and tired of being lied to by Education Minnesota and by their Democrat enablers.

    We demand accountability; we demand a return on our massive investment; we demand that academics be returned as the first priority of our schools; we demand that politically motivated curriculums be removed altogether; we demand that our children no longer be seen as nothing more than vehicles to high paying jobs for the union to we demand that the status quo be torn down.

    You may of course continue to threaten parents, but the time that those threats will be effective has come to an end. Either those in control of the public system will come to realize that their game is at an end, or we will simply continue to do what we are already doing:

    We will remove our kids to alternative schools.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/19/2008 - 12:45 pm.

    Come on John,

    How about a new idea?? Your article is nothing more than the latest spin for the largest special interest group in the state, the teachers union.

    Let us have real change and give families hope! Let us invest directly in the children for education rather than worn out failed system.

    Remeber, Mr. Obama is a product of private education. And when given a choice, he put his children in private schools.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/18/2008 - 02:20 pm.

    Why is it that the national media still refer to Tim Pawlenty as “Minnesota’s popular young governor?”

    I think not enough people are aware of the connection between his “taxpayer protection pledge” (and “pen”) and the current injurious shortages faced by school systems, the rise in property taxes statewide to make up for lack of the state aid we pay for in our income taxes, and, of course, the fees charged at every level of government in a desperate attempt to maintain essential services.

    Thank you for this (AND FUTURE?) articles.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/20/2008 - 09:30 am.

    Mr. Olson,

    Mr. Obama has his kids in private school in Chicago. Mr. Obama himself has only spent a few days in DC and even less in the Senate.

    Also, the DC schools are very represetative of many big blue city schools. After all the money, and the surge of funds to fight the war on poverty, the only solution that is offered in the article is the same tired, worn out rhetoric, “we don’t have enough money for schools.”

    Once again, the people who advocate Mr. Obama for president, offer no change, just more money for the liberal special interest groups.

    Putting the unions above children is the reason for no new ideas.

  6. Submitted by Ed Day on 08/24/2008 - 11:58 am.

    Sorry libs, Tom Swift is correct about the increases in school funding if he’s talking about the per-student funding from the state. Without calculating funding above the CPI for each year individually, the six-fold increase from $750 in 1973 (year of the Minnesota Miracle; it was considerably less just the year before) to $4,601 in 2003 (Pawlenty’s first year) represents about a 6 percent hike annually. (Of course, a decent suburban home that cost about $30,000 in 1973 would have sold for between $250,000 and $300,000 in 2003 — not so much today though).

    These increases were probably not steady. My guess is that support for schools swelled and there were significant funding increases in the 1980s as the children of baby boomers went through the system and support and funding waned as they graduated – to the point that a look at school funding over the last 10 or 15 years paints a less rosy picture. This is just a wild guess.

    Teacher pay is the biggest driver of costs, but not the only one. Unfunded mandates from the federal government like No Child Left Behind and underfunded ones like the requirement to teach special education are factors. Cramming seventh and eight hours to accommodate the expansion of school programs (many by popular demand) to include business education, foreign languages, ELL specialists, orchestras, D.A.R.E., and more extra-curricular activities also cost money. In some cases, schools have become a place of public health and social service screening, prompting some districts to hire more nurses, psychologists, and social workers. (Schools are a fairly logical place for this stuff, but it takes a bite out of the day-to-day operating expenses).

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with paying teachers a princely sum because most of them today are very good. The days of administrators being desperate enough to tenure some complacent knucklehead who’ll mail it in for the next 30 years. The higher pay will also attract career-changers who’ve been successful. Some forward-thinking districts have reflected this within the traditional step-and-lane by giving a very generous jump upon tenure – making a teacher’s current salary the bigger incentive than hanging around for the retirement benefits to kick in. This jump also makes it easier for teachers who are burning out to change careers. For these reasons, higher pay could be more cost-effective.

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