Editorial: Lawmakers must approve adequate school funding

ECMEditorial_QGov. Mark Dayton has proposed a vigorous funding budget for education for the next two years. It’s a proposal that deserves serious consideration by state lawmakers.

The proposal includes money for additional pre-K scholarships and student support staff, funding of the special education cross subsidy, funding to offset increases in district contributions to the teacher retirement fund, as well as several smaller provisions for targeted projects.

The cornerstone of the proposal is an increase in the general education per-pupil formula of 2 percent for each year of the biennium, a total of $371 million. These are the dollars needed to maintain the current programs in which students are enrolled. In actual dollars, the proposal would add $121 in per-pupil funding in the first year and an additional $124 in the second year of biennium. The per-pupil funding amount would increase from the current $6,067 to $6,312 in fiscal year 2019.

The basic funding formula has to meet three criteria: it has to be adequate, equitable and reliable.

Some 855,527 pre-K through grade 12 students depend on these funds to insure the continuation of their programs at comparable levels in future years. Two percent is less than most school districts indicate they need to keep up with increasing costs. The Association of Metropolitan School Districts requested 2.5 percent and the Schools for Equity in Education sought 3 percent for each year of the biennium.

Both Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Tom Melcher, MDE director of finance, acknowledge that the projected annual inflationary increase in cost is closer to 2.5 percent.

The bill has authorship from both sides of the aisle, which is a great start. Legislators hearing the presentation of the budget from Commissioner Cassellius raised concerns as to the need for the increase and its value to school programs.

Lawmakers are presenting additional questions and concerns about the funding proposal.

According to comments made to the Minnesota House Information Services, Rep. Jenifer Loon, Republican from Eden Prairie, believes “It’s a vigorous price tag. We have to look at the results for our money.” Rep. Sondra Erickson, Republican from Princeton, said, “I think we may need a different pathway. We have a conundrum on how we look at education.”

Concerns about the effectiveness of our public schools system of finance will always be before us and need to be addressed. Comments by Loon and Erickson are appropriate. However, we think they should be made in reference to the total cost of pre-k-12 schools, not to the increase needed to maintain the current system. Without a systemic plan for change and a data-based understanding of current cost, denying the funding increase penalizes students and/or burdens property taxpayers across the state.

In past years when the basic per-student formula has been underfunded school districts cut programs and services, raised class size or appealed to their local taxpayers for a voter-approved operating tax levy. From 2003 to 2014 per-pupil funding was well below inflationary costs. It is only since 2014 that funding levels have approximated inflation. In light of the fact that for varying reasons more and more teachers are leaving education, it is imperative that public schools have the resources they need to remain competitive and retain quality instructors.

In addition the state’s portion of the per-student funding moved from: 6 percent federal, 19 percent property tax, and 75 percent state in 2003 to a projected 5 percent federal, 27 percent property tax and 68 percent state in 2017. It’s clear that more and more of the state-mandated obligations to fund public education have gradually shifted from state and federal sources to local property taxes.

Taking care of the per-pupil formula increase should be the first priority of the educational funding package for the biennium. There are many other provisions that deserve careful consideration but the financial foundation of our school programs needs to be a priority. If anything the 2 percent per year allocation is light and should be increased.

Educational funding is a complex, many-faceted reality. The complexity comes from the attempt to be adequate, equitable and reliable. Each of these three qualities needs to be addressed and it should start with “adequate.”

– An opinion of the ECM Publishers Editorial Board. Reactions to this column are always welcome. Send to: [email protected].

 

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