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Minnesota must change its education-funding approach to address the achievement gap

Inadequate funding is one of the two primary causes of the gap; the other is systemic inadequacies in the delivery of education.

school lockers
When one thinks about the mantra “Minnesota Nice,” no one would expect to learn that education in St. Cloud is remarkably segregated by race, income, language, and to some extent disability status. I learned this from attorney Gerald “Jerry” Von Korff’s Law Review article titled “Minnesota’s Education System Is Unconstitutional: Will Someone Bring a Compelling Case?

Von Korff did bring compelling litigation in 2019 with the support of the School Board, Superintendent Willie Jett and leadership of the district. In St. Cloud Educational Rights Advocacy Council, Inc. v. Tim Walz, Governor, et al. the unfair and inadequate funding in Minnesota was exposed. Inadequate funding is one of the two primary causes of the achievement gap; the other is systemic inadequacies in the delivery of education.

The seminal case on this issue is Skeen v. State (1993). The Minnesota Supreme Court held that under the Education Clause of Minnesota’s Constitution, the state is obligated to provide sufficient funds for education that will enable each student to meet state standards. The court will not set aside the Legislature’s determination unless the funding system employed somehow impinges upon the adequacy with which the state meets the fundamental right to a general and uniform education.

The fastest growing segment of Minnesota’s future workforce is students of color, yet currently they have the state’s lowest graduation rate. Minnesota fails to provide enough funding to deliver an education that meets mandatory state standards to lower-income students, students with disabilities and English-language learners. The shortfall in special education alone is about $13 million annually in St. Cloud; one would hazard to guess where similarly situated districts like Minneapolis and St. Paul fall.

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Funding shortfalls not only widened the achievement gap, but as Gov. Tim Walz recently acknowledged in his Due North education plan, education over the past years has not been equal, with outcomes depending on the color of your skin or your ZIP code.

Sarah Williams
Sarah Williams
The St. Cloud education litigation was initially filed in February 2019, where the District Court dismissed the amended complaint in its entirety. However, in November 2020, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota reversed in part the district court’s dismissal of the education-clause claim and the denial of the temporary-injunction motion. The case has been remanded to the District Court for reconsideration and further proceedings on the merits.

The case does not seek to have the courts micromanage schools. Rather, it seeks to enforce a good faith requirement when the Legislature is calculating the annual revenue allocations. A 2004 task force appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty began work to determine whether the formulas appropriately adjust state revenue allocations for legitimate cost differences between districts, including additional costs for “at-risk” students. An equitable formula would take into account the added costs included with relevant characteristics of each student, such as disabilities, poverty, school readiness, English Language Learners, and student mobility. Unfortunately, the task force never got a chance to complete its work.

The state’s current funding approach is the direct cause of the achievement gap. The relief Von Korff and his client seek is simply for the Legislature and governor to do their job as mandated by Skeen. The state should have a vested interest in the success of its children.

“A society that invests in its children reaps real and lasting economic and social benefits.” – Bruce Baker.

Sarah Williams is a third-year student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and is part of the Advanced Community Justice Project Clinic.

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