Minnesota shirks its duty to fund schools
George Kimball, Star Tribune Commentary, March 6, 2013 – In her March 3 column (“Repay IOU to schools — for the state’s sake”) Lori Sturdevant argues that it is more important that the state finish repaying the funding shifts it enacted in recent years to balance the state budget than it is to provide proper funding for our schools. Ironically, two articles in the same edition of the Star Tribune make it clear that long-overdue investments in our schools should be a much higher priority.
The front-page story on March 3 (“Rising special ed cases are huge cost to schools”) outlined how the state and federal governments have failed miserably in their responsibility to provide funding for our special-education students.
In fact, in the current school year Minnesota school districts are redirecting more than $600 million meant for the regular classroom to cover unfunded special-education mandates. Another article highlighted how districts have been forced to cut the use of police officers as a school resource in order to balance their budgets in the face of inadequate state funding.
The reality is that the state has been engaged in a much bigger “shift” over the last decade. Over that time, it has systematically shifted the responsibility of paying for public education to local property taxpayers, parents and students.
Since 2003, per-pupil general education revenue has declined to $5,132, from $6,130, on an inflation-adjusted basis. Over that same period, the statewide special-education cross-subsidy (the unfunded cost) has grown to $631 million, from $478 million.
To make up for the lack of state support, school districts have had little choice but to turn to their voters to approve operating referendums. In 2003, the average referendum revenue per pupil was $352. That has skyrocketed to an average of $1,035 per pupil in referendum revenue in the current school year.
This increased reliance on referendums has led to a patchwork system of funding, with some school districts more successful than others in gaining voter approval. Virtually every school district is one failed referendum away from financial disaster.
In addition to shifting the responsibility of funding public education to local property taxpayers, the lack of state support has shifted costs to parents and students. With a growing body of research showing the benefits of full-day kindergarten, school districts are going to great lengths to provide this option. The state, however, does not provide funding for full-day kindergarten. Consequently, districts are forced to shift funds meant for other programs or to charge a fee to make full-day kindergarten an option.
Likewise, parents and students have seen increased fees for transportation and extracurricular activities as school districts have struggled to balance their budgets while saving programs and learning opportunities for students.
So the real question for state policymakers is: Which “shift” is a higher priority? Is it a higher priority to repay the aid payment shift, which would provide no new resources for our schools and their students? Or are state policymakers going to start fulfilling their constitutional duty to properly fund public education and stop shifting the responsibility to local property taxpayers, parents and students?
George Kimball is chair of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts and is a member of the White Bear Lake Area school board.