The Minneapolis Public Schools are planning to go to the polls in this fall’s election to ask for more money. They are going to ask for the wrong amount for the wrong thing. They should go big or go home.
The facts are pretty dismal. Only about 20 percent of Minneapolis students are college- or career-ready by the end of high school, while 40 percent of students don’t graduate. Another 20 percent don’t go on to get further education that is essential for success. And of the 40 percent who do go on to college or university, nearly half have to take remedial courses when they get there. In other words, they have to take high school over again. We are failing way too many kids, some outright and as many more even when we give them a diploma.
None of this comes cheap. Minneapolis is spending about $24,000 per student. That means that a teacher with 30 students has a classroom that represents nearly three-quarters of a million dollars! The teachers will rightly wonder where it is all going, since only a very small slice is going into their salaries. Voters should wonder, too. How could we be spending so much and still getting such lousy results?
Tens of thousands of families have stopped wondering and have left the district. That has led to a financial death spiral in which each year for the last seven years the district has spent more than it takes in. In that time, it has plowed through its “reserves” (savings to be used in emergencies or for one-time investments) at an astonishing rate to pay for ongoing costs until they have virtually run out (“Chronic deficits growing tiresome for Minneapolis, St. Paul school districts,” StarTribune.com, April 21.)
So now they are coming to us. They are planning to ask us for $30 million more a year for the next 10 years. That amounts to about $850 per student on top of the $24,000 we are already spending. A 3.5 percent increase. What will we get for that? We will get to pay more for what we already have — but in a couple of years, after inflation eats it all up, we will be right back where we are today. It’s the wrong amount for the wrong reason.
The Minneapolis Public Schools don’t need a little to keep things as they are — they need a lot to transform education and our city. We need schools that attract and hold families. That’s how we build strong, stable communities with rising property values. We need schools designed for the success of each student — not just 20 percent. We need teachers to guide students with a curriculum that is diverse enough to both challenge and support high achievement for each, and every, student. We need fewer but better school buildings, with 21st-century technology that connects students, teachers and families to the best educational opportunities in the world. Our students, families and teachers deserve these schools. Our city needs these schools.
The only way to get them is to invest. We should take $100 million a year for the next five years and use it to buy (not just pay for) the changes we need — in buildings, technology, curriculum and teaching. “Buying” change means that no dollar is spent unless it produces at least a dollar’s worth of the change we need. No change — no money. Everyone should have the chance to be part of the change, but no one should be entitled to be paid for their good intentions alone. Being part of this change is only earned by delivering results.
Will we get a chance to create these schools and educational possibilities for all of our students? The decision will be up to the superintendent and school board. They should either go big or go home. Our school leaders have a political and moral responsibility to create these schools. If they choose not to, they should not lead our schools — something we can also take care of in the election this fall.
Peter Hutchinson is former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools and former commissioner of finance for the state of Minnesota.