When I tutor kids at public schools in St. Paul, I'm always cheered by their buoyant eagerness to learn. But I'm equally impressed by the earnest and optimistic attention to improving results that I see from dedicated, overworked teachers and principals -- most of them presiding over a microcosmic United Nations melting pot every day.
I spend much of the rest of my time among (mostly) older, white policy wonks, elected officials and various other elites. Too many of them still subscribe to a badly shopworn wisdom that public education has become a budgetary "black hole,'' draining an ever larger share of our tax dollars while failing to produce the results we need for a smarter workforce.
We all have an irritating personal anecdote or two about public school bureaucracy or a bad teacher. And this fall we were treated to yet another Hollywood movie, "Won't Back Down,'' focusing on dysfunction in a fictional urban school.
Let's be clear: We must continue to address these worst-case failures and drive toward effective redesign and innovation, especially to address the stubbornly disappointing numbers for poor kids of color. The status quo is unacceptable.
But in seeking to reconcile anecdotal experience with broader policy reality, it always helps to step back, suspend both blind faith and cynical anger, and actually look for the data.
On the bottom lines of price, costs and outputs, three megatrends contradict the notion that Minnesota public schools are failing their huge complement of some 830,000 students. The megatrends show that over the last 10 to 20 years, with (1) a smaller percentage of our dollars and (2) a much poorer and costlier student body, public schools in Minnesota have (3) held their own and even slightly improved at least some test scores.
A case could be made that our schools are not failing at all but performing heroically.
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Less money (relatively)
The first trend to grasp is that our total school investment is stagnant, and actually has fallen sharply as a percentage of our ability to pay for it. At the very least, school spending most certainly is not "out of control.''
Total school district revenues as a percent of our total state personal income has declined, from a high of about 5 cents of each dollar in 1995 to a projected 4 cents in 2014, reflecting a general trend toward a lower overall "price of government" in Minnesota.
One penny less on the dollar may not seem like a lot, but 1 percentage point of personal income amounts to about $2.5 billion less for schools each year than if we had sustained the all-time-high effort of the mid-1990s.
Adversaries in the battles over school funding -- by far the biggest single piece of the state-local governmental budget pie chart -- typically seize on different measures to make their points about whether spending is up or down, or enough. The standard and too simplistic Consumer Price Index shows growth in real K-12 general education funding of about 15 percent between 1997 and 2012. Using a more realistic "Implicit Price Deflator'' (which measures special costs for governments), real general education funding has declined about 2 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
But the Price of Government standard may be the most comprehensive way to measure the overall effective tax rate for education. Some might maintain that public education is not "entitled'' to a certain percentage of state income. But a more convincing argument says that school funding -- largely for teachers' pay and benefits -- actually must keep up with or even surpass private-sector economic growth if we are to attract ever better teachers.
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More challenging pupils
Regardless of whether funding is stagnant or declining, there can be little debate that Minnesota's student population has become costlier and more difficult to educate.
The percentage of public school students living in poverty or near poverty, measured by whether their families qualify for the "free and reduced'' lunch and breakfast benefit, jumped by more than a third -- by a whopping 10 percentage points -- in just the last decade, from 27 to 37 percent.
At the same time, the percentage of non-white and new immigrant public school students, many from households where English is a second language or not spoken, also rose sharply. In just the last 10 years, the percentage of non-white enrollment rose by nearly 40 percent. This complexion change in our student body and our state will continue apace. In the latest census, 30 percent of kids under the age of 5 were non-white.
A mountain of research and common sense tells us not only that it takes more money to bring these kids up to speed, but that doing so will pay off. These are our children and they have just as much creative and economic potential as did the virtually all-white enrollments during most of the 20th century.
Minnesota during that century became an "above average'' place in almost all respects after it taxed and invested heavily in public education, first for the new ranks of low-income kids during the Depression under Gov. Floyd B. Olson, and then again with the Minnesota Miracle in the early 1970s. Those investments paid off handsomely in economic growth and vitality by producing one of the most capable workforces in the nation.
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Results to build upon
Despite these gigantic new challenges, our public schools are still delivering the goods.
With fewer resources and more students in need of special help, Minnesota schools have lifted National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores in three of four categories since the late 1990s, during a period when the Bush administration began a monumental push for standardized national testing.
Of course, these scores -- and current graduation rates -- are not nearly good enough, especially in an economy that increasingly requires more knowledge, better math skills and well-rounded students who can solve problems with a sophisticated set of skills. Results for some groups, such as African-American boys, are grossly unacceptable and public schools need to be held accountable.
Debates continue to rage about whether students are over-tested, or tested for the right things. There seems to be consensus that, at the very least, testing designed to punish schools rather than diagnose and help individual students is counterproductive.
Close attention to "results'' should continue. We ought to focus more effort on cradle-to-career investments that put more young people in the end zone, earning post-secondary credentials that prepare them for quality jobs of the future. The Generation Next initiative, launched Nov. 29 in the Twin Cities, is a powerful cross- sector coalition focused on closing gaps and increasing attainment. It needs all the support it can get from citizens and policymakers.
But as we head into a legislative session that will feature restoration of education funding near the top of the to-do list, we can only hope that less attention will be paid to the voices who say we can continue to do more with less, or with the same. Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who served Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty for several years, often allowed that "money does matter.''
And here's how current Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, the first person of color to lead the state department, warns against any expectation that our schools can indefinitely do so much, for so many, for less and less.
"We're just not accepting true reality if we think we can continue to get great results with this 'do more with less' trend we've become accustomed to,'' Cassellius says. "And doing with less is no longer an option if we want world-class schools. Student demographics are changing, workforce demands are changing, and the world in which we're competing is changing. If we don't find smarter ways to better fund our schools, ways that set up every student for success, Minnesota is destined to slip to just average among states...and nobody wants an average return on their investment.''
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