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Necessary But Insufficient

September 07, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

If you want to fly, you (generally) need wings. However, if you have wings, you still might not be able to fly; you might be a penguin. Wings are a necessary but insufficient condition for flying.

As such, when I say that strong state funding is a necessary but insufficient condition for universal student achievement, that means we need strong state funding to achieve the goal, but strong state funding on its own won't be enough. We also need appropriately distributed funding and effective quality controls on the spending of that funding.

Minnesota 2020's recent superintendent survey found that 93% of superintendents across the state believe the current funding system is not good for schools. Inflation adjusted, per pupil state funding to schools has declined by about 13 percent over the last decade.

Later this fall, many voters will be asked to raise their own property taxes to make up for this funding and avoid major school cuts. These property taxpayers will see again how "no new taxes" policy failure left us with a broken school funding system.

In particular, our current system does not guarantee high-need districts the necessary funds for successful operation, and our spending and policy priorities can dilute the effectiveness of the money we are allocating.

A system that cries, “No New Taxes!” at the state level guarantees “More New Taxes!” at the local level if services are to be maintained. In high-need districts least equipped to supply those new local taxes, that translates to reduced service quality.

This sort of system runs counter to those of more educationally successful countries. A recent report from the National Center on Education and the Economy found that the world's most successful education systems are “designed to distribute resources in ways intended to enable all students to achieve high standards. That...means unequal [but more equitable] funding designed to come as close as possible to assuring high achievement across the board.”

In other words, get more money to the districts and student groups that need it the most through centralized redistribution. Canada began implementing such a system roughly 20 years ago, and now “the gross inequities that came with raising money locally are gone,” allowing Canada to “[put] more money behind hard to educate children than children who are easier to educate.”

The United States as a whole, including Minnesota, will have to do more of this than other countries, because income inequality is higher here. One of the most commonly accepted measurements of income inequality is the Gini coefficient, an economic calculation that puts income inequality on a scale between 0 and 1. A Gini coefficient of 0 means that everyone has the same amount of income. A Gini coefficient of 1 means that one person has all the income and nobody else has any.

The Gini coefficient for the US as a whole is 0.469 (Minnesota does a bit better at 0.439). Canada's Gini coefficient? 0.321. Finland, even stronger in education, has a Gini coefficient of 0.268. In general, the lower a country's Gini coefficient, the less redistribution will be needed in school funding. Our higher income inequality means more work needs to be done to equalize funding.

Securing adequate funding is not enough, however. It is necessary but insufficient. We must also make sure that our money is being spent properly. Consider testing. No high-performing school system subjects their students to standardized testing as often as we do. A very small number of “gateway” exams regulate student advancement, but they look nothing like the testing Minnesota puts its third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade students through.

That testing is not cheap. In the 2011 fiscal year, the Minnesota Department of Education gave over $25 million to Pearson, the company behind the MCA tests. That's more than many school districts spend in a given year.

If we were to carve $15 million away from that, it would be enough to offer an extra $10,000 a year to 1500 high-performing teachers willing to teach in high-need districts and subject areas, and we'd still have $10 million dedicated to put into less frequent, higher quality gateway tests for advancement out of fifth grade, ninth grade, and twelfth grade.

It's easy to find buzz about teacher quality. High quality teachers start as high quality teaching candidates. To recruit high quality candidates, one must offer high quality pay and working conditions in the profession. Neither of these is particularly true for teachers right now, especially in high need districts, and we'll need political backbone to get those important funding needs addressed.

Minnesota has the capacity to invest properly in education. To do so requires strong state funding that effectively channels money to the schools and students that need it the most. It also requires that we make sure our money is going to the right things. Anything else undercuts even the noblest of intentions or the best of wishes.

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