That low moan rumbling through the air at the state Capitol this week? That’s Minnesota’s education advocacy community trying to figure out how to simultaneously express its gratitude and look a gift horse in the mouth.
The budget request Mark Dayton released Tuesday proves, once again, that the governor has been listening carefully to educators. It ticks, in at least partial form, nearly every box on a wish list that’s done nothing but mushroom for a decade.
“Everyone is over the moon about the things the governor has chosen,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of the grassroots advocacy group Parents United. “There is a nod to everything that people have been saying we need, and that is great.”
There’s money for early childhood education, all-day kindergarten, special education, English-language learners, school integration, teacher evaluation and children’s mental-health services. Also funded are new Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) programs to support struggling schools in Greater Minnesota and to combat bullying, and a permanent reduction in special-education paperwork.
A psychological breakthrough
“I don’t recall a proposed budget in quite a while in which education so clearly dominated,” said Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice. “Beyond all the details, the breakthrough in this budget is psychological, a determination despite a shortfall to invest substantially more and to redesign and innovate, with features such as the scholarships for early childhood education sought by MinneMinds.”
And by paying only cursory attention to paying back the shift in state aid to schools, the proposal might telegraph something school districts have been quietly hoping for: That the February revenue forecast will automatically retire the remainder of the holdback, ending what most saw as an era of fiscal gimmickry.
The disappointment: The governor did not propose a return to a statewide general education levy, which advocates generally agree is the lynchpin of a more equitable school funding system. Most likely, they note, this is because Dayton has also been listening to property owners, who have been asking for tax relief since he took office.
The decade of cuts in state spending that began in 2002 in virtually every arena has driven an 86 percent increase in property taxes. Put another way, for every $1 in state funding cut during former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, 67 cents was put back on property owners. At the same time, the 33-cent gap meant a dramatic reduction in public services.
Minnesota school districts were not immune, turning to local taxpayers to offset the shortfall. As state funding fell by $1,500 per pupil, local levies rose by an average of $800 a student. The disparities between poor and affluent communities created dramatic inequities.
And with school aid coming out of the state’s general fund instead of a special property-tax stream, funding became contingent on the state’s overall fiscal health. Finally, the practice of balancing the state budget by withholding larger and larger portions of school funding only added to the uncertainty.
Task force proposal
Deficits notwithstanding, Dayton came into office preaching rationality. Over the last 18 months, a state task force created a proposal to return to a uniform levy, which funded schools from 1950 to 2001. Even with the DFL in control of both legislative chambers and the executive branch the notion was seen as a tough sell.
Although the up- and downticks in tax bills would be relatively small, lawmakers were not thought to relish having to explain to overburdened constituents why they were voting for one more property tax. The governor, who has been promising property tax relief since his days as a candidate, would be in a similar position.
“The general education levy is just a tough nut to crack,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD). “It’s going to raise taxes in some parts of the state.”
And so, happy though they are with Dayton’s proposed $344 million increase in early ed and K-12 spending in the next biennium, advocates are concerned about its sustainability. “There is concern going forward, how are we going to support this?” said Cecconi. “Schools have lived through that for a decade.”
“As admirable as this budget is, the early education amount appears to be only about a fourth of what advocates were seeking,” added Smith. “General-ed restoration would provide longer-term stability, and we hope the governor sets a specific long-term goal for post-secondary completion, and a plan to achieve it, which is a prerequisite for business growth.”
A member of MinneMinds, a statewide campaign to increase access to quality early ed for Minnesota’s neediest 3- and 4-year-olds, the education policy group MinnCAN called on the governor to ask for the entire $185 million it would take to provide access for all.
Budgets still will be tight
Another caveat: As thrilled as education advocates are with Dayton’s specific requests, they hope the public — hungry for smaller class sizes, more teachers and the return of niceties like arts — understands that new money notwithstanding, budgets will still be tight.
“The reality is we’re still digging ourselves out of a hole that was created over the last decade,” said Croonquist.
He and other advocates are still parsing the proposal’s fine print, but first impressions are positive. The pool of money available for bringing mental-health services into schools would more than double to the $10 million level requested by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, AMSD and the state’s intermediate districts, which serve high concentrations of children with severe issues.
“If there was one thing that could be done to dramatically improve the lives of children with mental illnesses, it would be expanding school-linked mental health services,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota.
A $52-per-pupil increase in general funds would hand schools an additional $118 million the first year of the cycle. In the second, a $129 million increase in funding for special-education — services mandated by law but never fully reimbursed by the state or federal governments — will reduce the amount districts will have to shift from their general funds to make up the difference.
A reduction in this “cross-subsidy,” currently $600 million a year statewide, has long been seen as just as important a structural fix to education finance as the move back to a uniform statewide levy. Over the last decade districts have had to shift hundreds of state tuition dollars per pupil; in dozens the subsidy is in the $800-$900 range.
And there are questions about whether the funding for some of the other items on educators’ wish lists is adequate or will end up coming out of the new per-pupil funding.
For instance, Dayton asked for $40 million for optional all-day kindergarten. The state Education Finance Working Group estimated the cost of providing free all-day kindergarten to every low-income student at $63 million. Right now the state pays half the cost; the proposed budget would raise that to three-fourths, meaning districts would still have to make up the shortfall from elsewhere.
Some $44 million for preschool vouchers for low-income families would give 10,000 more children access to early childhood education — something that won universal applause at the budget proposal’s Tuesday release.
Potential ‘doughnut hole’
Some are concerned that an E-12 “doughnut hole” could result if kids who enjoy gains from early ed end up in half-day kindergarten or if things like low class sizes in crucial early elementary years are shorted to make up the difference.
The proposal asks for $1 million to create a School Climate Center within MDE to work with schools to prevent bullying. Minneapolis DFLers Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Jim Davnie are expected to introduce a comprehensive anti-bullying measure next month.
MDE would also get $4.5 million to create six Centers for Excellence that can provide technical assistance and guidance to struggling schools — particularly in Greater Minnesota. Another $9 million would shore up instruction for English Language Learners, $1.8 million would fund a permanent reduction in Byzantine special-ed paperwork and $9 million in savings have been identified.
Cost of teacher evaluations
Most unclear at the moment is whether the $10 million Dayton has requested for newly mandated teacher evaluations is enough. The governor has proposed spending $1.5 million the first year of the biennium to pilot a new evaluation system and $8.5 million for the second, when the program is expected to roll out in full.
A 2011 Minnesota Management and Budget estimate put the cost of evaluating all teachers at $80 million, however. If that’s borne out, the balance might end up taking a hefty bite out of the proposal’s new money. Also unclear is whether Q-Comp, the past administration’s controversial merit-pay scheme, would be fully funded or tied into the evaluations.
And finally, there’s the fact that the state still faces a deficit and the governor still faces a potentially fractious Legislature.
“Even the modest increases in education investment in this budget are possible only if the state raises roughly $1 billion more annually in revenue than currently forecast,” said Smith. “And if the tax package gets picked apart, that’s not likely to happen.”
At the same time, he and other education advocates are quick to say, while they are expecting an eventful session, at least the debate will be about where and how to invest.
“In the past, there’s been too much of a false choice between whether to spend more or do it better and somehow achieve more with less or the same with less,” said Smith.
Deliberating whether all of the taps can be turned back on slowly and smartly is a welcome change, AMSD’s Croonquist agreed. “That [Dayton is] making education a priority in general is welcome,” he said. “We’re very happy not to be talking about cuts.”