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School District Suffers in Face of Inadequate Funding

March 31, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

While Minnesota's education leaders tut-tut and point fingers about the failure to win Race to the Top grant money, the inexorable deterioration of our state's education system continues.

This was very evident in Tuesday's editions of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which featured two stories about education. One was about why the state missed out on federal Race to the Top funds. The other was about massive budget cuts at Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools that will result in the layoffs of 140 teachers and staffers.

Which story is more important? While the Star Tribune put the Race to the Top story in all its editions, the issue is tissue thin in Minnesota. The Rosemount story, however, ran only in South Metro editions even though it is another in a long line of examples of the state's failure to provide Minnesotans with the education they desire and deserve.

State officials hoped Race to the Top would provide as much as $250 million to Minnesota. However, the vast majority of the money would have gone to projects specified in Minnesota's application for the funds and very little would have helped maintain current programs or staffing levels.

No doubt state officials feel the sting of failure, but only Delaware and Tennessee made the cut and there's a second application round in June. Instead of leadership, we are treated to finger pointing at the teacher's union because the union didn't support the state's application. Education Minnesota said the application was forced on them at the last minute and required compliance with Q-Comp, Gov. Pawlenty's failed teacher merit pay plan. Rather than get rolled over with a poorly considered plan, the union stepped back and without union support, Minnesota's application failed. The state blames the union, the union blames the state, and so it goes.

The Rosemount story, however, is much more compelling. In 2003, based on an earlier agreement, the state took much of education funding off of local property taxpayers and put it in the hands of state government. During that same year, Gov. Pawlenty began cutting education funding so that today, schools receive 14 percent less than they did in 2003. Some make up the difference through voter-approved property tax levies (which go against the 2003 promise), while others haven't been so lucky. Almost all but the wealthiest of districts have had to make drastic budget cuts.

According to ThisWeek newspaper, cuts at Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan will include:

  • 143 employees, 78 of which will be classroom teachers, 36 art, music, media, physical education and technology instructors, and 29 from other staff such as administrative, clerical, and custodial.
  • Reduced spending on nursing services, teacher training and student testing. The drug education program D.A.R.E. will be cut for fifth-graders. Activity bus service will be eliminated.
  • An increase in fees by $55, for a range of $125 to $175 per sport, with an annual cap of $350 per student. Fees to participate in fine arts activities would stay at $70 but will be charged for each activity, up to an annual cap of $210 per student.
  • Football, baseball and softball from middle school.

The real question is what this means to the educational services provided to Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan students? The loss of 78 teachers will increase the number of students in each class and that will directly affect the quality of education these students receive. A loss of 36 teachers in non-core subject areas is just as large a loss because education in Minnesota is more than simply reading and writing. Students need a whole education, and cutting 36 of these teachers doesn't provide a whole education. And while 29 administrators, clerks and custodians will go away, their duties will remain. The teachers and administrators left in the buildings will absorb those responsibilities.

Cutting the nursing staff is a good idea until you need nurses. Nurses not only take care of sick children and those with chronic medical conditions, they are also responsible for developing plans for epidemics and emergencies as well as communicating with parents when communicable diseases like lice or strep throat or H1N1 appear in school. Cutting the nursing staff is a bad idea.
Peer pressure is a huge problem in middle school. Convincing children in fifth grade to make good choices about drugs makes sense. Being forced by budget cuts to drop the D.A.R.E. program in fifth grade does not.

Research has proven conclusively that extra-curricular activities keep students engaged in school and is a key component to lowering the dropout rate. Raising activity fees and cutting bus service seems like a necessary evil in these tough times, but the opposite is true. Now more than ever our students need these activities.

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan made these choices not because they wanted to but because they had to. State funding is not adequate to educate our children. Virtually all of Minnesota's 340 districts are cutting budgets. Race to the Top money wouldn't have ended Minnesota's multi-year policy of underfunding public education. It's up to our state leaders to turn that disturbing trend around.

While education and state leaders are bemoaning their lost Race to the Top opportunity, remember that 143 employees of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district will be out of work next fall. Students in that district will have a worse education because of it.

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