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

Yes, on a properly adjusted basis, education funding did decline during the Pawlenty years
By Eric Black

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.

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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.