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Lack of Education Policy Vision Plays Out In Rural Minnesota

May 20, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota's state education policy lacks vision.

While educators across the nation and around the globe prepare students for both the workforce and to be competent citizens, Minnesota's educators remain saddled with unfunded mandates, a regressive state funding policy, and a set of education policies the state has neither the labor nor willpower to enforce.

This lack of vision is evident throughout the state - rural Minnesota has not been spared. It is most evident in the fact that the Blackduck and Warroad school districts will join the MACCRAY school district in using a four-day school week.

Four-day school weeks work like this: In exchange for several extra hours in school four days each week, school is cancelled one day each week. Students receive the same number of hours in school in fewer days throughout the year. Since the hours spent in the classroom are roughly the same, payroll savings are minimal: Salaried employees make the same amount of money while hourly employees see some small decrease in pay. Building utility savings are limited because the buildings need to be maintained on off days as well as during school days.

The big savings come in transportation. One day without bus transportation each week can save a rural district as much as $70,000 - enough to retain two teachers.

When it comes to education attainment, research shows a four-day school week is neither particularly harmful nor beneficial. The problem with the four-day school week is that it's a decision local school officials are forced to make not to enhance education, but to save money.

This is the state's vision for education: save money.

The state's cries of caring about education ring hollow. Since 2003, when the state pledged to take over education funding from local property taxpayers, state funding for education dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent. The cost of educating Minnesotans devolved onto property taxpayers via levy increase requests. Where these requests succeeded, school quality stayed the same or even thrived. Where they failed, education failed as well.

On June 30, the McLeod West school district will cease to be. Its student body will be divvied up between three surrounding districts. McLeod West property taxpayers won't get off scot-free - they will still have to pay off the district's several million dollars of debt. Meanwhile, the Tracy and Balaton school districts are ready to consolidate at the beginning of the next school year, most likely hoping for a better outcome.

While most consolidations work out fairly well, some go off the rails like the consolidation of the Stewart and Brownton districts in the 1990s that led to the formation of the McLeod West district. No doubt the failure of McLeod West has to do with factors such as a lack of political leadership, poor facilities, declining enrollment enhanced by open enrollment, and a disastrous state funding program, but the real problem has to do with a lack of vision from state education leaders.

In A Region Apart: A Look At Challenges and Strategies for Rural K-12 Schools, by the Center for Rural Policy and Development, researchers from the University of Minnesota, Duluth asked rural school administrators about their preeminent needs and issues. The administrators said their first concern was with the artificial prioritization of assessments, particularly to meet the mandated No Child Left Behind Act requirements. NCLB is an ineffective way to measure academic achievement, yet the state does nothing to ameliorate the unnecessary amount of time, finances and stress caused by NCLB, or helps those schools unnecessarily punished by the program.

Rural administrators decried the lack of stable funding for their schools. A bill introduced in the 2008 legislature dubbed the "New Minnesota Miracle" would have provided the framework for that funding. It never made it to the governor's desk.

The third area of concern for rural administrators was allowing students to achieve according to their abilities. Lack of internet access is an impediment, they said, as is continuing development for teachers and adequate facilities and hardware. Proper financing for these tools is crucial, of course.

Much is said but little is done about education in Minnesota. The education consortium PS Minnesota figured out what a proper education will cost, and it is about $2 billion a year more than what we're paying.

Sticker shock? Wait until May 2019 when today's second graders will graduate unprepared to compete in the workplace, when those with talent will leave the state for a better salary or education, or accept a pay cut to work near home.

Minnesota's current vision for education has us not treading water in the middle of the pack of states when judged by educational ability, but sinking to the bottom. We can, and must turn things around.


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