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Dirty Deeds

September 21, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

“Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap!” So goes the old song. The cheapest way to get dirty deeds done, of course, is to trick someone else into doing them for free. This is exactly what conservatives across the state are trying to do in their coordinated efforts to dupe Minnesota's people into stripping vital support from their local schools.

Say what you want about the statewide school system, but I'm pretty sure you know your local schools' situation better than some random legislator not from your district.

Minnesota's state support for schools, adjusting for inflation, has been declining since 2003. The $50 per pupil pittance passed in the recent session will go mainly to cover the costs of delayed state payments to local schools. Even with that, state support by 2013 will be 13% lower than it was a decade earlier. And now conservatives want to tell you how much more your community should strip from your schools.

As Minnesota 2020 and others have covered, conservative legislators have mounted a campaign to convince people to vote against their local school levies this fall. Evidently unsatisfied with their stonewalling of state funds, they're now targeting school support outside their purview.

We know that local levies are painful. The Pawlenty years taught us that “no-new-taxes” for the state means “new taxes” for our cities, counties, and school districts. As the tax burden has shifted from the progressive income tax to regressive property taxes, middle class Minnesotans pay more while the best-off pay less. But this is not enough for some conservatives, apparently.

What business is it of theirs what communities choose to spend on their schools? What possible interpretation of the duties of a legislator compels these conservatives to lecture towns they do not represent about how much to support their schools?

One begins to suspect that this goes deeper. This is a mindset of suspicion, mistrust, and—occasionally—antipathy directed at the public school system. This is a belief that, no matter how little schools have, it is still too much. This is about misguided hunts for phantom waste or a mythical infestation of bad teaching.

Yes, efficiency should always be sought. Yes, ineffective teachers should be improved or removed. No, schools do not have enough money.

What can't be accomplished in the state government has been packaged in misleading accounting tricks to be sold to the general public. These are not the actions of concerned public servants. These are the actions of a dogmatic cadre obsessed with undermining the public school system.

Let us remember that the school system is not broken in the sense of a car that's broken down and needs repairs. It didn't suddenly stop working; it has, in fact, never “worked” in terms of producing universal readiness for post-secondary success. This is because the history of public education in this country has, until recently, been about increasing access to school. Universal achievement of the kind we're talking about today was never on the agenda.

As such, we should not be surprised that some of our schools have not yet realized our new goals. We should encourage them to do so, of course, and we should do everything we can to support them in their realignment.

What we should not be doing is punishing our schools unnecessarily. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the conservative campaign against local schools aims to do. The catch is that this time conservatives are trying to get you to do their dirty work.

At the end of the day, these conservative efforts are to cloak their own agenda in the same “will of the people” claims they've been hollering for months now. Of course, if they really respected the will of the people, they would let the people choose how to best support their own schools.

This campaign betrays the profound disdain conservatives in fact have for “the people”. When you need to resort to deceptive accounting and lecturing other communities on how to live their lives, you show that you don't actually trust the people to agree with you.

This is a dirty campaign with a dirty motive using dirty tricks to get dirty deeds done by good people. Any conservative legislator who comes to your town spinning tales of nonexistent “windfalls” or make-believe “bloated administration” or an imaginary horde of “bad teachers” has overstepped his or her bounds.

This is a concerted effort to deceive you into defunding your neighbors', kids', or grandkids' school. It should be beneath them, and it's definitely beneath you.

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