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Now is precisely the time to invest in education

As Minnesotans digested last week’s news of a state revenue shortfall, they experienced the distress that those in the education community have felt for years. Like education funding, Minnesota’s financial situation is bad and will take true leadership to get the state moving again.

The state promised to fully fund education early this decade. It hasn’t kept that promise. Don’t believe what you hear about a 4 percent increase one year or a two percent increase in another; since 2003, state education investment has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent.

This has led to truly horrific decisions: Last summer, Brainerd laid off 15 percent of its faculty. Osseo laid off 161 teachers and closed two buildings. These districts and hundreds of others like them didn’t have the opportunity to lower class sizes, better the workforce, and increase the number of college graduates — all because the state wouldn’t invest enough money in them.

Underfunding has led to slightly silly decisions as well. Since September, students in the MACCRAY school district have been going to school only four days per week. The district needs to cut about $350,000 this year and is shaving off about $65,000 by cutting Monday transportation. There are other cuts: Superintendent Greg Schmidt said social studies, Spanish, physical education, family and consumer science, and band and choir teaching positions have all been affected. There are plans to close a building and move students to other schools. High-school classes will average 29 students per teacher, well above recommended numbers.

Others thinking of cutting a day
“I’ve gotten calls from a number of superintendents looking at four-day weeks to save money as well,” Schmidt said.

The Rochester School District is considering a four-day week. After citing the fact that some rural districts in South Dakota and Colorado operate under four-day weeks to save transportation money, the Rochester Post-Bulletin notes that the Rochester district is considerably smaller than those districts and won’t save as much in transportation costs, that students already have a hard time staying alert without lengthening the school day to accommodate the lack of Monday hours, and families will have to make new day-care arrangements for their Monday care.

“If at some point in the future this is the only way to balance our school district’s books, we’re in serious trouble,” the newspaper reasoned.

The editors are correct, but not because of the slightly frivolous reasons listed above. They’re right because it’s another sign that Minnesota’s government has failed in its constitutional responsibility to fund a quality education. In lieu of the financial security that comes with legislative leadership, these superintendents are looking for gimmicks to keep their schools afloat.

An unkept promise
In 2001, lawmakers promised that the state would pay for education. They said districts would go to local voters for permission to raise taxes for “extras” not covered by state funds. Since then, districts have been hammered over and over by state underfunding — the aforementioned 14 percent drop in income — leaving them to go to voters and beg for additional money.

Asking people to raise their property taxes can be a dicey proposition, especially if the voters don’t have children in school and don’t see the clear connection between an educated workforce and the state’s economic future.

The evidence is irrefutable. An increase of one-half grade level in student achievement will increase home values in the district by more than 9 percent. A $1 increase in education investment will result in a $1.63 increase in personal income. Dropouts cost taxpayers $1.1 million over a lifetime. Employers warn that without a trained, tech-savvy, intelligent workforce in Minnesota, they will move their businesses to where those workers exist — be that in Seattle, Raleigh, or Mumbai.

Dire financial forecasts may send some running for cover, but true leaders know that now, more than ever, is time to put our education system on a bedrock of financial security that will allow us to reap the economic benefits for decades to come. Now is the time for bold vision and the political will to provide our children with an opportunity to succeed and our state to prosper.

John Fitzgerald is a fellow with Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on its website.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/09/2008 - 09:58 am.

    Once again the same drivel regarding education, “we don’t have enough money.” Of course, we will never have enough money to fund the largest special interest group in MN, big education.

    Let us have real change and give families hope. Let us fund children instead of unions. Let us make children a special interest group instead of big education.

    When given a choice, Mr. Obama as an unknown Illinois state senator put his kids in private school. And now as the president elect, he puts his kids in private school. Let us give all the children of America the same choice Mr. Obama enjoys. Let’s create choice for children rather than keeping them on the reservation of union education. That is the kind of change we need.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/09/2008 - 11:58 am.

    John, you say “since 2003, state education investment has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent”, but the numbers from the Department of Education do not bear that out.

    Are you using inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index, or a “custom” scale unique to school budgeting discussions?

    You go on to state “The evidence is irrefutable. An increase of one-half grade level in student achievement will increase home values in the district by more than 9 percent. A $1 increase in education investment will result in a $1.63 increase in personal income.”

    Wait, what?

    What is this irrefutable evidence of which you speak? Where are you getting these numbers, John?

    And further, if these prognostications are correct (and they may well be) you have failed to link how simply dumping more money into the public school system ensures, or even effects, these outcomes.

    That certainly hasn’t been the case in MPS or SPPS.

    With all due respect, I believe we’re well past the time when a fellow of a left wing public policy lobby (or of a right wing lobby, for that matter) can stand on a soapbox and throw out such unsupported bombast.

    How about a couple of links, John?


  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/09/2008 - 01:05 pm.

    What is at stake here is not the future of a school district, or even our state. It is the continued preeminence of America on the world scene.

    Today’s world is flat — and we live in a digital society for better or worse. Our military might will not prevail alone, nor will our economic strength. In the end the best educated and smartest societies will previal; and unless our governments (both state and national) understand this (and fund accordingly), we will surely decline internationally.

    Minnesota has had a fine record in education — but it is slipping, and trending poorly. There is a lot at stake here; and hopefully our governeor and legislature will appropriate sufficient funds to keep us competitive.

  4. Submitted by John Fitzgerald on 12/09/2008 - 02:32 pm.

    Mr. Swift,

    Here’s the citation for the personal income information: Helms, L. Jay. 1985. “The Effect of State and Local Taxes on Economic Growth: A Time-Series-Cross-Section Approach.” Review of Economics and Statistics 87: 574-82.

    Here’s the citation for the home value information: Jud, G. Donald, and James M. Watts. 1981. “Schools and Housing Values.” Land Economics 57(3): 459-70.

    Our figures do not come from the Department of Education but from the Management and Budget’s Price of Government report, which excludes non-operating revenue and is more complete.

    We use the implicit price deflator rather than the consumer price index to determine inflation because it is the measure that school districts are instructed to use on their supplemental truth-in-taxation statement; it is the inflation measure Gov. Pawlenty has used in local levy limits; it is the inflation measure recommended for schools and other local governments by high ranking members of the Pawlenty administration (Dan McElroy); it is the measure of inflation used for local governments by non-partisan legislative staff; and it is the measure of inflation for government recommended by the Council of Economic Advisers.

    So, as you can see, I didn’t throw out unsupported bombast. My bombast was fully supported.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/09/2008 - 03:46 pm.

    Thanks, John.

    If I’m not mistaken, and I’m not, the implicit price deflator for Government adds several points to the consumer price index value for inflation.

    In other words, the price of Government (and schools) rises at a significantly faster rate than it does for private business sectors.

    The fact is that with the exception of 2003, the budget for K-12 education in this state has exceeded inflation (as measured by the consumer price index) by no less than 3% for the past ten years.

    I think that is important information for the thoughtful reader to have, don’t you agree?

    You go on to say that “Our figures do not come from the Department of Education but from the Management and Budget’s Price of Government report, which excludes non-operating revenue and is more complete.”

    Excludes some revenue, but is more complete. (sigh)

    Odd that you choose to not to use the budget numbers from the Department of Education, since it is they that are responsible for maintaining and accounting for it…or is it?

    The point is this:

    I’ve been an advocate for public school students for more than ten years now, and when it comes to finances, one thing that can be counted upon is a high level of obfuscation, and in at least one case that I pursued with the Ramsey County Attorney, outright lying by school district administrators, board members, unions and their various support groups.

    I’m not accusing you of the latter, but I think that the lack of important information in this, and other pieces folks are likely to come across from defenders of the status quo needs to be exposed to the light of day so that intelligent decisions can be made with the best interests of the students in mind.

    There is a reason that the cost of public education outpaces the private sector, while at the same time posting ever more disappointing academic achievement results. It is because academic education is no longer the first priority in the public system….yes, it’s just that simple.

    The system is broken, John. The evidence is irrefutable.

    Throwing money at public education before a top to bottom reorganization is well underway is just that…throwing money at it.

    Stakeholders are increasingly aware of that fact, which is why districts are having a harder time prying ever more money from them. It’s also why the defenders of the status quo are pulling out all of the stops to put school budget increases on codified autopilot.

  6. Submitted by John Fitzgerald on 12/09/2008 - 08:30 pm.

    Mr. Swift,

    Thanks for your well reasoned and well articulated comments. I am certain that, should we talk over a cup of coffee sometime, we would agree that the education system is broken and the status quo must go. While our viewpoints certainly differ, the fact that we can agree on this fills me with hope.

    I stand behind using the implicit price deflator to judge government spending. Most top-notch economists use it, and that makes it good enough for me.

    We don’t use the Department of Education’s figures because they aren’t specific enough to track operational spending. I’m rather on the outside of the Dept. of Ed building, so you’d have to ask them about what they include in their figures and why.

    I’m going off memory here, but schools received no increase from the state in 2003-04 and 2004-05, 4% increases in 2005-06 and 2006-07, a 2% increase in 2007-08 and a 1% increase in 2008-09. Seems to me like we want a top-shelf education system for bottom-shelf prices.

    Now we have school districts going to four-day school weeks because they can’t afford five whole days of education. You say we should hold schools accountable for the money they spend on educating children. I say schools should be held accountable for educating our children and we should give them the money they need to get the job done.

    I do appreciate your thoughts, Mr. Swift, and I look forward to hearing more from you.

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