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Minnesota's Education Roof Has Already Failed

September 23, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

There's a beautiful fiction our leaders like to weave when we talk about the state's budget. In it, we all sit around the kitchen table - Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis - and discuss our income and outgo in logical, sensible terms. Do we really need a family caviar night? Perhaps if we cut back on buying mink coats every season, we could meet our family budget.

And so it goes with Minnesota's government. Our leaders ask us to contemplate: Do we really want to pay for good roads? What exactly is an educated populace worth?

Were we to continue the allegory, Ma and Pa and the kids would sit at the table poring over their bills while the sky yawns vastly above them. You see, the roof has collapsed, winter is coming and the family's future is quite uncertain. While the family has been fiddling with this or that bill, the house has collapsed.

Late last week, the Minnesota Department of Education put out the list of 57 school districts that will ask voters in November to approve increasing their property taxes to support schools. The districts range from large to small, rural to urban and all points in between. When it comes to the lack of education funding, Minnesota wields an equal opportunity garrote.

Minnesota's education funding system has failed our students. Today, there are fewer teachers, administrators, aides, paraprofessionals, secretaries, coaches, counselors, nurses and custodians than ever in our schools. These adults used to be in charge of educating our youth. Now some of them are in charge of doing the job of two other people, and some are in charge of deciding whether to increase class sizes or eliminate some curriculum altogether to cut a district's already paltry budget.

Governor Pawlenty called for and received a report from a blue-ribbon committee (with a membership of his own choosing) that outlined what the state needed to provide so that Minnesotans receive a quality education. The price tag was $1 billion more each year. That was too rich for the Governor and his conservative allies.

In fact, facing financial hardship for the remainder of his two terms in office (his term runs until 2011), Pawlenty and the cut an inflation-adjusted 13 percent from Minnesota's schools. With flat federal aid, that means schools have had to cut from their budgets or ask voters to raise their property taxes to make up for what the state should be paying.

That's where we stand today. More than 96 percent of Minnesota's school districts fund up to 20 percent of their budgets with local property taxes. In November, nearly sixty school districts out of the nearly 350 in the state have to ask voters for the resources the state won't provide. Tax-weary voters are leery of claims from the districts that important cuts will be made. But the cuts have come. Programs have been dropped, services cut, class sizes have skyrocketed and Minnesota's students are receiving a demonstrably worse education than students were 10 years ago.

In the meantime, the dropout rate hasn't budged, nor has the achievement gap - Minnesota continues to have one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. Students are served by fewer teachers and other professionals. Class sizes - which should be in the 16 to 21 range - now routinely top 30 and near 40 in schools across the state. And while we understand that Minnesota needs a highly educated workforce to sustain our economy into the 21st century, we don't seem willing to make the investments necessary to create these workers.

That's why the roof has caved in. Sitting at the kitchen table and shaving a few dollars here or there won't fix Minnesota's education system. The state has failed our children by financially starving our schools.

Here's a list of the schools heading to the polls and asking voters to do what the state should be doing: Aitkin, South St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, St. Francis, Spring Lake Park, Detroit Lakes, Montevideo, North Branch, Moorhead, Brandon, Rushford-Peterson, Ashby, Wayzata, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Heron Lake-Okabena, Mora, Ogilvie, International Falls, LeCenter, Hendricks, Eden Valley, Austin, Adrian, Byron, Pelican Rapids, Perham, Edgerton, Cyrus, Roseau, Jordan, Shakopee, Becker, Big Lake, Holdingford, Kimball, Paynesville, Blooming Prairie, Waseca, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose, Rockford, Cambridge-Isanti, Milaca, Ulen-Hitterdal, Maple River, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, Wadena-Deer Creek, NRHEG, MACCRAY, West Central Area, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winstead, Eagle Bend-Clarissa, Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Lac qui Parle, Blue Earth-Delavan-Elmore, Lake Park-Audubon, Renville, Westbrook-Walnut Grove

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