The April 30 editorial “State lawmakers can compromise on K-12” shows a of lack of understanding of the challenges facing school districts and the general state of school funding in Minnesota. While several worthy legislative proposals have been offered this session, including initiatives to address the teacher shortage and diversify the teacher workforce, there is not a proposal on the table that would mitigate the budget cuts facing many metro school districts.
Members of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD) are facing a combined $55 million budget shortfall and over 100 staff layoffs for the 2016-17 school year. This is on top of the nearly $43 million, including almost 300 staff layoffs, in budget reductions that were implemented in the current school year.
It is bewildering that the Star Tribune Editorial Board and state policymakers are offering up ideas for how to spend the state budget “surplus.” Can we really have a surplus when the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a general and uniform system of public schools? Consider:
• The latest report by the Minnesota Department of Education shows that Minnesota is underfunding special education by over $600 million a year. That’s right, Minnesota school districts are redirecting over $600 million per year from funds meant for regular classroom instruction to cover the state special-education funding shortfall. This issue has become so prominent that we even have a name for it in state statute — the special-education cross-subsidy.
The cross-subsidy is the amount that school districts must subsidize the special-education fund, with money from the general-education fund. There is a common misperception that special-education funding is the responsibility of the federal government. While additional federal funding would provide welcome relief, the reality is that Minnesota special-education mandates exceed federal mandates. In other words, the special-education funding shortfall is the responsibility of state policymakers.
• Special education is far from the only program area in which school districts experience a cross-subsidy. School districts routinely need to use general fund resources to cover transportation costs and deferred maintenance. In the 2013-14 school year, AMSD members received $29 million in state aid for programs to help our English learners, which had a cost of over $98 million. Here again, school districts used general fund resources to cover the state shortfall.
• While the general fund is being asked to pick up a greater and greater share of non-general-fund expenditures, the general fund itself has lost considerable ground to inflation. If the base education funding formula had simply kept pace with inflation since 2003, it would be over $600 per pupil higher today.
• With state education aid losing ground to inflation, school districts increasingly have turned to voter-approved operating referendums to provide the resources and opportunities their students need to graduate from high school ready for college or career. While these voter-approved referendums are especially critical for metro school districts and play a critical role in funding basic education programs, they have a widely different impact on local property taxpayers, depending on the property wealth of the school district. Increases to referendum equalization are badly needed to provide a level playing field for school districts and tax relief for property taxpayers.
Despite the clear evidence that Minnesota’s education funding system is not providing adequate, equitable or sustainable resources for our schools, we are engaged in a debate about how to spend an illusory budget surplus. And the Star Tribune Editorial Board is describing education funding proposals that will do nothing to alleviate pending budget cuts or address the massive special-education funding shortfall as “too rich.”
Rebecca Gagnon, John Vento and Bruce Richardson are chair, vice chair and past chair, respectively, of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. They serve, respectively, on the Minneapolis, Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park school boards.