Education funding must be adequate, fair, accountable

Financing the education of Minnesota’s kindergarten through grade 12 students takes nearly half of the state’s annual budget and by constitutional provision the funds must support a “uniform system” of public schools so that each student receives an “adequate” education.
We believe more needs to be done to both insure that funding is adequate to accomplish our educational goals and that variances in funding address more uniform opportunities across districts and not advantages to some and not others. State and local school officials must also demonstrate accountability that programs are working to levels that show student success.
The Minnesota Legislature has guaranteed each child basic aid of $5,302 this year and $5,806 in the following year, which includes a different per pupil weighting for next year. The actual per pupil percentage increase for both years is 1.5 percent.
Not every child, however, is backed by an equal amount of money, in part because voters in some districts passed property tax levy referendums and some did not. The amount of this additional property tax levy per pupil varies district to district.
We think too much of a Minnesota child’s education depends on local politics (sometimes national politics); local property tax wealth; local household income and ability to pay. We recommend reliance and access to these local voter-approved tax levies be reduced.
Some districts also receive additional funds based on a high percentage of students from poverty and/or racially isolated schools. There is general agreement that students from poor families need more help to learn lessons. A specific goal is for all students to be reading third-grade material as they enter fourth grade. We think these funds are greatly needed if Minnesota is going to close the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.
During the last legislative session the Legislature approved funding for universal all-day/every-day kindergarten and increased funding for preschool education. We supported both provisions and believe this is a major step toward closing the achievement gap and raising the level of education for all students.
In addition, districts that meet the poverty criteria can get integration aid and federal and state compensatory funding to close the achievement gap. This additional funding should also be continued.
The Legislature increased special education funding by $40 million and set up a schedule of future payments. Since individual programs for children with learning disabilities by law must be funded, school districts last year spent $585 million of general operating funds to fund special education.
The underfunding of special education continues to detract from the adequacy of our total funding effort and needs to be addressed.
We reduce or increase what we spend on education based on the economy. On the surface that seems to make sense. We delay payment to the schools to cover our state debt and cash flow, forcing schools to borrow on our behalf. That doesn’t make so much sense.
We want long-range planning for the education of our students but we change the funding formulas and commitments every two years, reacting to everything but a long-range educational plan and specific expectations for success. We struggle to find balance between local control and state funding; between local funding and state expectations. Throw in federal funding and federal expectations and the blueprint for educational success starts to look like a Rube Goldberg design.
Parents expect the programs that were available for their older child to be there for their younger child. If their neighbors pass a property tax provision their programs will remain in place. If the levy is voted down a child’s program is cut.
If state revenues are up the foundation formula can chase inflation. If state revenues are down the formula lags behind. If a Legislature is anti-tax the funding is challenged and programming is insecure. If the Legislature has too many initiatives, funding for education suffers. If the new employee contract is affordable, programs stay in place. If a new contract exceeds revenue increases, class size goes up and programs change.
So where in this system of funding is the reliability for mom and dad? Where in this system of funding are the assurances for each student? What is the core plan for the success of Minnesota’s schools and how financially committed are we to that plan?
Some suggest the educational funding system is too complex. We would suggest the problem isn’t with complexity as much as with commitment.
With commitment, however, must come accountability. We insist that accountability for expenditures be built into educational programs at the local, state and federal levels so that funds are spent to reach goals that can be measured to determine either their success or failure.
Within the past few years a state study group recommended provisions for the funding of education. We think these recommendations represent a good start. We now need to revisit those recommendations in view of an educational plan and and make a long-range commitment to funding that plan.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board

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