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Robust System Can Rebuff Education Elitism

July 21, 2008 By Vicki Roy, guest commentary

Vicki Roy is a member of the school board in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district.

School financing in Minnesota is bad and getting worse. While more demands are placed on schools through programs such as No Child Left Behind, the state continues to financially choke schools by refusing to spend enough to provide children even a basic education.

The funding problem plays itself out in classrooms every day. State education experts talk a good game about increasing support for science, technology, engineering and math classes, but budget cuts have pruned advanced calculus and physics classes from the curriculum. At a time when leaders tell us that Minnesota's economic health depends on our ability to compete with other nations, schools are cutting back on foreign language, world history and honors classes.

It takes money to offer these classes, but state funding is so out of whack that more than 90 percent of all Minnesota districts need voter-approved levies to pay their bills. Getting these votes is a tricky proposition. Often, voters are unaware of the consequences of their vote on the community's health and economic future. They often wrongly believe the state is supplying enough money to provide a basic education.  Sometimes they are fooled by snake-oil salesmen who sell scared voters a false bill of goods about the education students receive and the quality of the teachers who offer it.

For many districts, voter-approved levies make up to 20 percent of their budget. Private-sector businesses would crumble if 20 percent of their budget was dependent on asking voters to raise their taxes, just as education is on the precipice of a government-created economic meltdown today.

Districts in poor areas, which need voter-approved funds the most, have a tough time convincing voters to pay more in taxes. Meanwhile, wealthier districts, which need the funds less, have an easier time passing levies. Knowing voters will continue to financially support schools, these wealthier districts allow more of their budget to be reliant on property tax levies, which allows them to offer a better education for their students. Thus the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This elitism-as-public-education-finance-policy is not acceptable in any state that values education.

Some of the 99 districts that asked voters for more money last November won their elections. Some lost. But all face financial disaster within three or four years. Many districts have spent all reserves and now are walking a budgetary tightrope - one misstep and the district will fall like a deck of cards.

How does this happen? The non-partisan Minnesota House Research Department reports the state proportion of total education spending has dropped from 86.7 percent in 2003 to a projected 76.9 percent in 2009.

The question is what happens when districts aren't successful renewing their levies?  Do they offer school only four days a week?  Do they cut athletics and co-curricular activities?  Do they jack up fees so poor students can't afford them? Do they increase class sizes? Do they cut remedial and honors courses?  What happens as the budgets go up and down -- one year we offer three, four or five years of Spanish and the next we cut the Spanish classes all together? One year we offer AP calculus, world history and physics and the next year those classes are cut?

This situation is intolerable. Some lawmakers propose a new "Minnesota Miracle," which would create a framework to properly fund the education system. But it is only a framework. Minnesota needs the political will to fund schools to at least the bare minimum.

There is no longer any doubt. Minnesota's education system is being financially choked to death. Its demise is imminent if lawmakers and the governor don't act quickly. Minnesota's future relies on an effective workforce. Without a robust education system, that goal is simply smoke.

Vicki Roy has been a member of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board since 1992. She is a member of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, the Alliance for Student Achievement, the Minnesota 2020 Education Advisory Board and serves on the board of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

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