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Education finance bills offer highlights, lowlights — and ‘lower lights’

DFLers likely will be able to tout fulfilled campaign promises, but education advocates see a decidedly mixed bag.

The policies introduced so far by DFL leaders present education advocates with a decidedly mixed bag.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Remember the day after the 2012 election? For a moment, it seemed as if having the Minnesota House, the state Senate and the executive branch all in the hands of the DFL — either in education’s corner or its pocket, depending on who was doing the talking — might herald the Second Minnesota Miracle.

By close of business Friday, lawmakers on the education finance committees in both chambers will have spent the lion’s share of the week dissecting their respective omnibus education finance bills. They will have taken testimony and they will have weighed “the runs” — the spreadsheets reporting exactly how much each plank of the measure means to their district.

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At least in the House, they will likely be able to send a package that’s politically palatable to the majority to the full floor. If the Senate does likewise, DFLers will be looking forward to a summer spent telling their constituents they fulfilled campaign promises.

To education advocates, however, the runs are a decidedly mixed bag. The highlights and lowlights:

Highlight: The House’s $550 million spending proposal would add 2 percent a year to the general education formula. Theoretically anyhow, that’s new money for every pupil in the state. No one’s turning it down.

Lowlight: Conservatively estimated, inflation over the next biennium is projected to eat up $500 million — virtually the entire increase to the formula. Plus, lawmakers are explaining away some key funding omissions as “covered by the general fund,” further chipping away at the idea the money is really new.

Highlight: Minnesota’s dreaded GRAD test — in the case of math, a single exam even many of the best and brightest can’t pass — will be replaced by a college-readiness pathway that will do more in practical terms to prepare kids for good careers. Bonus: The new system is funded, so districts won’t have to tap those new dollars.

Lowlight: There isn’t one, except in the view of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has long argued that its members deserve a seal of employability on high-school graduates.

Lowlight: There is no money for legislatively mandated teacher evaluations slated to begin next year. The cost of the performance evaluations is estimated to be anywhere from $80 million-$100 million.

Potential highlight: There really isn’t one, except among the ranks of the perpetually politically optimistic, who fantasize about scrapping the 2011 evaluation law and starting over. Or not.

Highlight: Long on the political chopping block, integration revenue is intact. The system of parceling it out has been realigned to follow students of color and to put parameters on its use that are tied to desegregation and achievement.

Lowlight: Again, if this is portrayed as new money rather than more equitable money, taxpayers will be left scratching their heads over the lack of new programming.

Highlight: Every Minnesota child will have access to full-day kindergarten, chipping away at the danger they will be struggling by third grade.

Lowlight: Early-childhood education scholarships, also shown to prevent the achievement gap from opening in the first place, are funded at $56 million. This is $12 million more than Gov. Mark Dayton requested, but only a third of what it would cost to eliminate the waiting list for preschool funding.

Lowlight: Also missing is funding that would allow districts to provide English-language learners with seven years of ELL instruction instead of five.

Double lowlight: This is one of those items leaders can insist is “accounted for in the formula,” whose new money must now stretch all the further.

Highlight: There is formal recognition that as larger and larger shares of districts’ operating funding were pushed onto the backs of local property tax payers over the last 10 years, a crazy-quilt of school levies created gross inequities. The so-called equity formula would be enhanced in the House bill, directing $33 million to the very lowest funded districts in the state.

Lowlight: This may sound like funding equalization — actually a highlight for an elected official back in the district — but it will do nothing for the vast majority of Minnesota districts.

Further lowlight: It compounds confusion about the distinction between equality and equity fanned by the equal-increases-for-all portrayals of the new money on the formula.

Overall takeaway lowlight: Because the most important structural fixes to Minnesota’s school finance system didn’t make the cut, schools can expect to hover anxiously over “the runs” again in future years. And because said runs are too complicated for virtually anyone to understand, “new money” will remain a fungible concept.

Overall takeaway highlight: The new money comes from new taxes. New taxes imposed on an electorate that doesn’t understand state finance any better than it does “the runs,” but that knows its property taxes are out of control.

And victory great or lackluster, the general education formula increase gives those taxpayers something tangible to hang onto.