Belated factcheck: Yes, on a properly adjusted basis, education funding did decline during the Pawlenty years

In yesterday’s post about Tuesday’s MN Chamber of Commerce debate among the guv candidates, I noted a few factual assertions that I thought could benefit from some checking. I’ll post on them case-by-case as I make progress.

I heard Dayton say that during the Pawlenty years (2003-2011), public school spending, had declined by $1,300 per pupil. I assumed, since Gov. Pawlenty has often claimed to have spared K-12 education from the budget-cutting knife, that this was a controversial assertion.

Turns out, I was wrong and way behind. Dayton had made the same claim in his ads during the primary campaign and the national fact-checker PolitiFact had checked it a month ago. PoliGraph, a Minnesota-based fact-checker that is a joint project of the Humphrey Institute and MPR, also checked soon after. Both group’s found that Dayton’s numbers were defensible, but they faulted him for not mentioning that the study on which the claim was based, by researcher Jeff Van Wychen of the liberal think tank Minnesota 2020, had adjusted the annual school spending numbers for both inflation and changes in student population. The previous fact-checkers faulted the Dayton ad for not mentioning the inflation factor, but found that Van Wychen’s calculation was correct.

Dayton apparently accepted the criticism and now mentions inflation adjustment when he cites the figure. On Tuesday in the Nisswa debate, however, Dayton specified that the $1,300 decline was based on both inflation-adjusted and student-population-adjusted dollars. So I rate it as true, as Dayton expressed on Tuesday.

Van Wychen, by the way, is updating his study and told me this morning that the new study will show that the decline in education funding continues, although at a slow rate. He expects his update to show a total decline, since 2003, of about $1,366 per pupil, on a fully inflation and per-pupil adjusted basis.

Those calculations, by the way, don’t take account of the $1.4 billion in scheduled state aid to schools that was “shifted” in the past biennium. “Shifting” is, to me, a euphemism for an accounting trick that the state can and has previously used to get through budgetary hard times by not giving the schools as much as the funding formula mandates. The schools either make up for it out of their own reserves or borrow the money, and the state promises to pay the schools back eventually. This has been done in the past and the state has always eventually paid back the “shift,” but neither the shift nor the deficit have ever been this big. Current law calls for the state to pay off the shift this biennium, but personally I would be surprised if that happens. Nonetheless, Dayton’s statement and Van Wychen’s study treat the shifted money as if it has already been provided to the schools.

Anyway, the fact that Dayton cited that per pupil funding has declined over recent years isn’t necessarily a big political problem for anyone in the guv race, unless Repub nominee Tom Emmer decides to embrace Pawlenty’s flawed claim. But it could be a vulnerability for Pawlenty if he becomes a serious presidential candidate, which will cause a microscope to be used on his record as governor.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/19/2010 - 11:19 am.

    The ‘shift’ is a real problem.
    School districts can’t simply delay paying their bills for six months.
    Those lucky enough to have cash reserves will lose interest payments; those who have to borrow to stay solvent will incur interest costs. The State does not pay back interest — basically it’s giving itself an interest-free loan from school districts.
    And no, school districts cannot simply cut costs at the last minute — many of their costs are fixed (buildings must be lit and heated), and districts have already made deep cuts in programs.
    Tough Shift, baby!

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/19/2010 - 01:32 pm.

    It would be interesting to me to know how these “cuts” were dealt with.

    How many classroom personnel were cut vs office personnel, for instance.

    And how many maintenance issues were left not dealt with.

    And how many amenities were slashed or fees imposed vs closing unused buildings.

    I have to say, in our school district (283) I think they did a pretty responsible job of adjusting to decreased enrollment and funding.

  3. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 08/19/2010 - 02:48 pm.

    Can you please tell me why a child in Minneapolis or St. Paul is worth more than a child in Plymouth, Minnetonka, Eagan, or most other cities in the metro? I base that on the fact tht MSP schools get a much larger $/student amount in “state” aid than do the other districts. Last time I looked that was MY taxes laving MY district. Why won’t Dayton address that disparity? Or is he only too happy to play the soak the rich card?

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/19/2010 - 02:53 pm.

    “It would be interesting to me to know how these “cuts” were dealt with.”

    That’s been a question of mine for some time; applied both to schools & to the state budget overall. I’d like to see some comparisons between now, when budgets are falling short, to some distant period of time when budgets (allegedly) weren’t so tight. What has changed? Where is money spent now where it wasn’t before? What costs have risen, and which have fallen?

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/19/2010 - 03:20 pm.

    @ Mohammed Ali Bin Shah:

    I’m not in the Minnesota legislature, nor am I likely to be, so I can’t speak with much authority here for Minnesota, but in other states where I’ve lived (Missouri and Colorado), state aid to school districts is typically based on a sometimes-complicated formula, a significant component of which is usually the local per-capita or per-household income, since that’s typically the major determining factor in property ownership (thus, property taxes) as well as property and income tax revenue. Often – not always, but often – other parts of the tax base are used in the formula, as well. Usually, this means including the value of some portion of a school district’s industrial and commercial property.

    Like a lot of things related to funding through taxes, this sort of thing can fluctuate, depending upon the political winds. My suburban St. Louis school district was deprived for several years of many millions of dollars in tax-based revenue because a major industry in the district challenged its property tax assessment in court, and until the case was resolved, all the potential tax revenue was held in escrow. It really put a crimp in what the school district could afford to do until the case was settled.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/19/2010 - 06:55 pm.

    I know that in higher education the Minnesota State University system has been described as going from state supported to state assisted to state located.
    When I started out at MSU,M 40+ years ago, the state paid about two thirds of a student’s tuition. When I retired two years ago it was down to about one quarter. The difference was made up primarily in tuition, although there has been some attempt to bring in outside funding.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/19/2010 - 06:59 pm.

    You’d also have to look at demographics.
    What are the special needs populations, school lunch aid eligible populations, etc., in Hennepin and Ramsey counties (funding goes to school districts, not municipalities) compared to the suburban ring?

  8. Submitted by Colin Lee on 08/20/2010 - 10:12 am.

    Mark Dayton needs to increase his figures. If you don’t count the accounting shift, the state borrowing from district emergency funds, and the unfunded federal mandates in No Child Left Behind, then we ONLY lose $1366 per pupil per year. The trouble is that number leaves the false impression that our schools aren’t really suffering. Half of state Department of Education funding is now going to NCLB. Every penny lost to the shifts and borrowing is being financed through high-interest short term loans. That interest comes from cuts. We really need someone to quantify these additional expenses, since we have so-called “conservatives” getting away with the ridiculous allegation that we’re spending record high sums of money on classroom teachers and that there have been no cuts. We have young teachers leaving the profession at a record pace because there are no full-time jobs.

  9. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/20/2010 - 11:47 am.

    I find it significant that the typical private k-12 school can operate with a little over half the funding per student of the equivalent public school.

    And I keep wondering how that can be.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/22/2010 - 08:45 am.

    //I find it significant that the typical private k-12 school can operate with a little over half the funding per student of the equivalent public school.

    And I keep wondering how that can be.

    Private schools are not required to enroll and teach every child. They have a fraction of a fraction of the special needs, non English speaking students. And even then, they’re not out performing most public schools.

    Actually private schools are experiencing budget crunches as well, especially religious private schools.

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/22/2010 - 02:09 pm.

    In fact, private schools not only do not educate special needs children, they send them to the public schools for that service.
    They can also expel any student who is hard to teach and let the public schools worry about them.
    Education is cheap when you cherry pick your students.

  12. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/22/2010 - 04:59 pm.

    I often heard similar claims to justify the much higher costs at county/state run nursing homes, but when tested it turned out they were not true.

    Can anyone send me to sites that can verify that private schools “cherry pick” their students and do not provide any special needs to students, and these two factors alone account for the huge cost differences?

    If not, I will continue to wonder…

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/24/2010 - 08:54 am.


    All you have to do is look at the demographics of private schools vs. public schools. Private schools students are mostly white, from middle-upper middle class families, and free of learning disabilities. That’s why when then these disparities are controlled for the private school advantages largely disappear.

  14. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/24/2010 - 10:58 am.


    We read the same study differently, it appears.

    I suggest that the “unadjusted” data indicates that those with an interest in a good education tend to gravitate to private schools.

    I see NO indication that this means private schools “cherry pick” their students, or that they provide NO services to special needs students, as you would suggest.

    “In grades 4 and 8 for both reading and mathematics,
    students in private schools achieved at higher levels
    than students in public schools. The average difference
    in school means ranged from almost 8 points for grade 4
    mathematics, to about 18 points for grade 8 reading.
    The average differences were all statistically significant.”

    Executive summary, Page 7

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2010 - 07:59 am.

    //I suggest that the “unadjusted” data indicates that those with an interest in a good education tend to gravitate to private schools.

    Yes John, the problem with public school parents is they’re just not interested in quality education, that’s an interesting interpretation. Regardless, there’s a selection bias which produces a significantly different student population. When you control for that bias most of the advantages of private schools disappear.

    “After adjusting for selected student characteristics,the difference in means was near zero and not significant. In the second set of analyses, Catholic schools and Lutheran schools were each compared to
    all public schools. The results, both with and without adjustments, were similar to the corresponding results all private schools.”

    Same executive summary.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2010 - 08:01 am.

    And for math grades 8-4

    “For grade 4 mathematics,
    the difference was significant, and the adjusted school mean was higher for public schools”

    Public schools are outperforming private schools.

  17. Submitted by John E Iacono on 08/25/2010 - 09:49 am.


    Talk to employers, please.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/27/2010 - 10:02 am.

    //Talk to employers, please.

    Preferably employers who support Emmer.

  19. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/30/2010 - 06:43 pm.

    Where did Mark Dayton go to high school?

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