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Now is Precisely the Time to Invest in Education

December 08, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

As Minnesotans digested Thursday's news of a state revenue shortfall, they experienced the distress that those in the education community have felt for years. Like education funding, Minnesota's financial situation is bad and will take true leadership to get the state moving again.

The state promised to fully fund education early this decade. It hasn't kept that promise. Don't believe what you hear about a four percent increase one year or a two percent increase in another - Since 2003, state education investment has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent.

This has led to truly horrific decisions: Last summer, Brainerd laid off 15 percent of its faculty. Osseo laid off 161 teachers and closed two buildings. These districts and hundreds of others like them didn't have the opportunity to lower class sizes, better the workforce, and increase the number of college graduates; all because the state wouldn't invest enough money in them.

Underfunding has led to slightly silly decisions as well. Since September, students in the MACCRAY school district have been going to school only four days per week. The district needs to cut about $350,000 this year and is shaving off about $65,000 by cutting Monday transportation. There are other cuts: Superintendent Greg Schmidt said social studies, Spanish, physical education, family and consumer science, and band and choir teaching positions have all been affected. There are plans to close a building and move students to other schools. High school classes will average 29 students per teacher, well above recommended numbers.

 "I've gotten calls from a number of superintendents looking at four-day weeks to save money as well," Schmidt said.

The Rochester School District is considering a four-day week. After citing the fact that some rural districts in South Dakota and Colorado operate under four-day weeks to save transportation money, the Rochester Post-Bulletin notes that the Rochester district is considerably smaller than those districts and won't save as much in transportation costs, that students already have a hard time staying alert without lengthening the school day to accommodate the lack of Monday hours, and families will have to make new day care arrangements for their Monday care.

"If at some point in the future this is the only way to balance our school district's books, we're in serious trouble," the newspaper reasoned.

The editors are correct, but not because of the slightly frivolous reasons listed above. They're right because it's another sign that Minnesota's government has failed in its constitutional responsibility to fund a quality education. In lieu of the financial security that comes with legislative leadership, these superintendents are looking for gimmicks to keep their schools afloat.

In 2001, lawmakers promised that the state would pay for education. They said districts would go to local voters for permission to raise taxes for "extras" not covered by state funds. Since then, districts have been hammered over and over by state underfunding - the aforementioned 14 percent drop in income - leaving them to go to voters and beg for additional money.

Asking people to raise their property taxes can be a dicey proposition, especially if the voters don't have children in school and don't see the clear connection between an educated workforce and the state's economic future.

The evidence is irrefutable. An increase of one-half grade level in student achievement will increase home values in the district by more than 9 percent. A $1 increase in education investment will result in a $1.63 increase in personal income. Dropouts cost taxpayers $1.1 million over a lifetime. Employers warn that without a trained, tech-savvy, intelligent workforce in Minnesota, they will move their businesses to where those workers exist - be that in Seattle, Raleigh, or Mumbai.

Dire financial forecasts may send some running for cover, but true leaders know that now, more than ever, is time to put our education system on a bedrock of financial security that will allow us to reap the economic benefits for decades to come. Now is the time for bold vision and the political will to provide our children with an opportunity to succeed and our state to prosper.

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