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Latest school aid shift a good reason to revisit plan to revamp funding

In observance of the 60-40 shift in state education funding agreed to Thursday by Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP lawmakers, let’s take a look at another shift that might have resulted in a very different outcome.

In May, a week before the Legislature adjourned at a stalemate, a task force appointed by state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius at Gov. Mark Dayton’s request released a 25-page report (PDF) detailing a dozen recommendations for reforming the state’s system for funding schools.

The politically diverse Education Finance Working Group’s chore was a wonky one. For the most part, its membership — heavy on the green-eyeshade crowd — looked not at strategies for closing gaps or bettering education but of simplifying the current, convoluted way schools are funded.

Finding new money would have been a bonus, but the group’s main charge was to recommend methods for creating stability. Any increased financing would come from the resulting efficiencies.

After meeting seven times in the preceding two months, the panel — explained in the broadest terms — recommended that the state return to a system where schools are funded more uniformly and in a more stable way via a statewide general education levy. The fine print is pretty dense, but overall, the group promised, this would not increase total school levies so much as even the playing and taxing fields.

And while it would not have constituted any kind of windfall for school districts, it would have given administrators a shot at predicting from one year to another how much money they will have to do things, such as hiring teachers and investing in gap-closing strategies like reading and math intervention.

If the idea sounds familiar, it should: It is essentially the same funding fix as the 1971 Minnesota Miracle, birthed in a previous legislative stalemate and notable for making local pupils the envy of the rest of the nation for a time.

It’s also the same funding mechanism that went bye-bye in 2003, (PDF), the result of legislation passed during former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s tenure as state House majority leader; that’s the year in which most school administrators would say their checkbooks truly began to bleed.

Indeed, the shift the group proposed would have put enough inflation-adjusted money back into general education funds to restore state aid to 2003 levels. It would also have resolved the knotty conundrum surrounding the future of integration funding — a financing stream everyone agreed needed overhauling, which the GOP proposed to do by spiking it.

Late May was an ugly, intense time at the Capitol, and with the exception of a few lost-in-the-news-cycle stories in which Rep. Pat Garofalo suggested the proposal’s authors should “grow up,” it got virtually no ink.

And so last night the main proposal for balancing the state budget on the table was the one authored by Garofalo’s party: to hold back 40 percent of state education aid until next year, with no plan for how it will get paid back then.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the shift guarantees Minnesota an opportunity to revisit the task force’s work next year.

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