Education, and in particular state education finance, is the campaign season equivalent of three-card Monte. Its multiple moving parts and staggering numbers make it particularly susceptible to spin. And spun it gets — what political hopeful ever in history hasn’t been positioned as “the education candidate”?
Thank goodness, then, that the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD) puts out a nonpartisan election guide that lays out, in plain English, the facts and the stakes. If you are interested enough in education to visit this blog, you should download a copy at once.
In its 24 pages [PDF], voters will find solid, inflation-adjusted numbers, sample questions for local, state and congressional candidates, and suggestions for ways in which people can get involved. Candidates will find suggestions about issues they need to be prepared to talk about on the stump and ways to get up to speed.
The aforementioned financing confusion? The crucial numbers are broken down for each of AMSD’s 37 member districts.
And the numbers are crucial indeed. For instance:
“Between 2003 and 2013, Minnesota’s basic per pupil funding formula increased from $4,601 to $5,224, an increase of 13.5 percent. During that same time period, inflation grew by 42.86 percent,” the primer explains. “The $50 per pupil per year formula increase approved during the 2011 special session represented an increase of 2 percent over two years. Inflation is projected to be 4.3 percent over that same time period, meaning that the basic formula allowance continues to lose ground to inflation.”
More eye-popping still is the shortfall in state funding for special education services. The fine print on how this gets calculated would run on for pages, but the bottom line is that the unfunded cost of special education in Minnesota was $546 million in fiscal year 2011 and $595 million in 2012. The figure is projected to increase to $614 million by 2013.
School districts are required to provide services to needy students whether state funding is adequate or not, so that money must come out of districts’ general funds. And the general fund, just to bottom-line it for you, is the part of the funding pie that’s most in danger of losing its stuffing.
“The failure of the state to fund mandated special education programming is without a doubt the primary reason Minnesota school districts face funding challenges year after year,” the guide notes.
Expressed another way, the shortfall cost the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state’s largest, $31 million in 2011, or $700 per pupil. St. Paul Public Schools’ unfunded costs topped $36 million, or more than $800 per student. Minneapolis’ unmet need was $34 million, or $900 per pupil.
More and more needy students
At the same time, the number of needy students is growing. “Since 2003, the number of Minnesota students eligible for free or reduced price lunch has increased from 27 percent to 37 percent,” the primer explains. “The percent of students with limited English proficiency has increased from 6.2 percent to 7.7 percent, and the number of students receiving special education services also increased from 13.2 percent to 14.9 percent.”
And the needs are concentrated in the Twin Cities. “AMSD member districts make up 48 percent of the state’s enrollment,” the document adds. “It is important to note that in the state of Minnesota, 47 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, 70 percent of the English language learners identified and 48 percent of special education students are enrolled in AMSD districts.”
Metro-area districts will also be disproportionately affected by the expiration in 2013 of the state’s integration revenue program. The 2012 Legislature was expected to overhaul the program, but its political opponents succeeded in keeping the topic off the agenda.
As a result, 139 school districts statewide are slated to lose $94 million; metro area districts will lose $78 million.
Guide to redrawn districts’ candidates
There’s more, of course, including a super-useful guide [PDF] to the candidates running in newly redrawn districts.
Finally, a warning for those candidates: Any of you door-knocking without having you’re your homework do so at your peril. According to AMSD Executive Director Scott Croonquist, the organization’s member districts report that the guide gets used by parents and other community members.