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Excellent News Today, A Warning for Tomorrow

August 19, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Our schools are facing hard financial times. Almost every school district in the state is laying off faculty, cutting programs or plotting strategy to win levy elections in November, or all three.

That's why it came as a breath of fresh air last week when the 2008 ACT results showed Minnesota students doing quite well on the standardized entrance exam. Minnesotans scored higher than any other students in states where half the students took the test. Our scores went up over last year's scores and we did better than the national average in all four testing areas - English, math, reading and science.

This would seem to pose a conundrum: On the one hand, we have schools that produce great students ready for higher education and entry into the work force; on the other, we have school boards that need more money to create these students.

Is this truly a conundrum? According to the ACT, when compared to each other, our students are doing well. However, compared to the needs of the future, our students need some help.

Using long-term employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ACT found there are not enough Minnesota students who express interest in employment in several high-growth fields.

Even more troubling, of those who do express interest in high-growth fields, ACT found that:

  • Only three-quarters are ready for first-year college English courses;
  • Less than two-thirds are prepared for college-level social science courses;
  • Less than one-half are ready for college-level math courses;
  • Less than one-half are ready college-level science courses.

It is imperative that our schools produce students who are qualified for good jobs to become productive, taxpaying citizens. These ACT scores show Minnesota is a top-tier state for education, but we will no longer hold that designation if we can't prepare our students for two- or four-year college programs that will lead them to the jobs of the future.

Schools are under greater financial pressure than is widely perceived. Adjusted for inflation, the state has cut funding to schools by 13 percent since 2003. Even with voter-approved levies added to the mix, school district funding is 4.6 percent less today than in 2003. Meanwhile, costs for insurance, diesel and heating fuels have skyrocketed.

Since every taxpayer succeeds when our industries succeed, and our industries succeed when our schools succeed, then it is in the best interest of the state to perform its constitutionally-mandated duty to provide every student with a quality education. Cutting state aid by 13 percent since 2003 and forcing schools to bring the begging bowl to voters every year is not how Minnesota should offer a quality education.

Additional operating levies will allow schools to pay their bills for another year. But there is a bigger issue: We know what Minnesota schools can do - produce the top college entrants in the nation. We know what's coming - a dearth of qualified students interested in high-needs areas.

State policymakers should ensure Minnesota's ability to not only educate our children well and efficiently, but will prepare Minnesota for the future by giving schools what they need to create a quality workforce.

Like the ACT, it's important to see not only the successes of today but the necessities of tomorrow.

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