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"No New Investment" = Substandard schools

October 12, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Nobody likes paying taxes, but if we want to live in a civil society we have to pool our money to invest in needs. We need bridges and police and firefighters. We need judges and airports and soldiers.

And we need good public schools. Unfortunately, schools cost money, apparently more money than the state is willing to spend.

On Nov. 6, one-third of Minnesota's school districts will ask voters to pay higher property taxes so schools can provide a basic education. Local levies once were intended to pay for extras such as new football uniforms or music classes. But the Nov. 6 levies are for the guts of public education -- to keep teachers in the classrooms, to keep class sizes down, to keep buildings open.

In other words, they're asking for money that should be provided by the state.

"There are more than 100 districts going to the polls," said Greg Vandal, superintendent of the Sauk Rapids/Rice school district. "That is tangible evidence that there is something wrong with state funding."

The state's leader, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, signed a no new taxes pledge and he's been as good as his word. Faced with a state budget deficit in 2003, Pawlenty froze state per-pupil aid to the schools for two years and cut other assistance by $600 million.

It was devastating for schools to see costs rise while income declined. The next two years saw a 4 percent increase in per-pupil aid each year - good, but not enough to make up the deficit. This year there is a 2 percent increase, next year a 1 percent increase. Both are insufficient to meet school needs, but both fit into Pawlenty's no new taxes pledge.

Minnesota schools have been facing this problem for decades. Adjusted for inflation and enrollment changes, total revenue for Minnesota schools increased an anemic 2.5 percent per year from 1984 to 2004 while demands for new programs, mandatory tests and special education skyrocketed.

But between just 2000 and 2004, operating expenses increased an average of 18 percent while the cost of employee benefits rose 31.7 percent. Special education costs rose 31 percent and will continue to rise as much as 5 percent a year. The state requires special education services but doesn't pay for most of them, leaving already underfunded schools to pick up the bill.

A levy referendum is not a sure thing. Last year, voters denied about 60 percent of them. In addition to anti-tax and anti-public school ideologues, many voters don't have a personal stake in schools. The need for quality public education isn't always apparent to citizens without schoolchildren.

And the graying of Minnesota means that levy election campaigns will only get more difficult. According to the State Demographic Center, the number of married couples with children under 18 is projected to fall 24,500 by 2015 while the number of other households will jump nearly 250,000. The long-term outlook projects 634,000 additional households in Minnesota by 2035 and nearly 8,000 fewer couples with children than in 2005.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and education officials are working to adjust the state's school funding formula. A legislative task force is set to study the issue and prepare a report by Jan. 15. They will likely first consider a funding formula developed by P.S. Minnesota, a group that includes almost all state education organizations. It would distribute state money more equitably, factoring in expenses such as fixed costs, which is not in the current formula.

That task force has yet to meet, and its report will be only a recommendation.

With no new taxes comes no new state money for education, which means districts will continue to be forced to go to voters to pay their bills via local property taxes. And 60 percent or more of the levy referenda probably will fail. That means fewer teachers, more crowded classrooms and fewer reading, science and math programs. That means Minnesota's children will get a poorer education.

"No new taxes" really means "no new investment." You get what you pay for.
 

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