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April 25: The Day School Quality Died

April 30, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

That giant sucking sound across Minnesota yesterday was the sound of quality being drained from our schools.

State education financing is so thin that if schools used today's funding to offer what experts say is the minimum acceptable education, they would run out of money on April 24. The closure date is earlier in rural Minnesota: Dassel-Cokato would close March 4; Sauk Rapids-Rice on March 12; Wabasso on April 1.

"Oh my gosh," said Mary Neu, a parent in the Dassel-Cokato school district. "That's a slap in the face with reality."

Years of state underinvestment have caused the quality of education to decline. A decline in quality won't be reflected in student test scores and college applications for several years, but it is reflected immediately in a school district's bottom line.

Districts stretch state and local funds to cover 171 school days. Since state law prevents schools from cutting the number of days they offer classes, cash shortfalls are met by laying off teachers, hiking up class sizes, cutting the number of course offerings, erasing supplies, and more.

These tough decisions have led to a drop in the quality of education. Teacher layoffs mean more students in each class which means lower quality education, said Sauk Rapids-Rice superintendent Greg Vandal.

"It's a dilution of quality. It's more difficult to bring 32 students to state achievement standards than it is 20 or 18," he said. Vandal compared it to Thanksgiving dinner - at the same table, 10 guests will eat a better meal than 20 guests.

Ted Suss, superintendent of Wabasso Public Schools, offered this example: A first-grade teacher with a class of 30 students will devote about 10 minutes daily, or five hours each day, of one-on-one work with each student. Cut the class to 20 students and the teacher can increase that time by half.

"So much of teaching is one-on-one time, and that's what you lose," Suss said.

In 2003, Gov. Tim Pawlenty formed a task force to determine what staff and resources are necessary for Minnesota students to reach state education standards. The task force came up with a blueprint for a basic education. Pawlenty disbanded the task force, but a group of educators continued the study and put a dollar amount on the recommendations.

Adjusted for inflation, implementing task force recommendations would cost $10,795 per student this year. In 2008, districts received $9,234 per student from state and local taxes, or only 86 percent of what it costs to provide a minimum education.

That means a school district providing a proper education would be forced to close its doors 146 days into the 171-day school year. Schools would run out of money on April 24.

In 2007-08, state and local taxes gave the Dassel-Cokato school district about 68 percent of what it needs to provide a quality education. This means the district could offer 115 days of school, which means "summer break" would begin March 4. Sauk Rapids-Rice received 70 percent of the cost of a quality education, meaning it would close its doors March 12. Wabasso got 76 percent of what it needs and would be forced to end school April 1.

"When you look at what kids need to be on par with the rest of the nation, we're not giving it to them," Neu said.

The figures don't lie. Between 2004 and 2008, Dassel-Cokato saw an 11 percent decrease in state funding, a 118 percent increase in local property tax levies and a decline in total revenue of 9 percent. That means $759 less for each Dassel-Cokato student. The numbers carry through Sauk Rapids-Rice and Wabasso: double digit decreases in state funding, triple digit increases in local property taxes, and hundreds of dollars less to spend on each student.

There is a disconnect in the governor's office: Pawlenty's task force determined what constitutes a basic education, yet the governor refuses to fund such an education. By Pawlenty's standards our children are getting a subpar education. No matter what day the schools close, our children are being cheated out of a basic education.

To read Gov. Pawlenty's Education Finance Reform Task Force report, "Inve$ting In Our Future: Seeking a Fair, Understandable and Accountable, Twenty-First Century Education Finance System for Minnesota," July 2004, click here.

To read the school financing report, "Estimating the Cost of an Adequate Education in Minnesota," Nov. 2006, click here and click on Phase Two Adequacy Report at the bottom of the page.

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