When it comes to school finance reform, Minnesota can do better.
Today, similar children in similar school districts throughout Minnesota receive vastly different sums of per-pupil education revenue based on where their parents choose to live. Our state’s policy for funding public education is inequitable, irrational and inexplicable.
No legislative issue has a greater potential impact on the long-term quality of life and economic vitality of Minnesota. Every biennium, Minnesota spends nearly $14 billion on education — roughly 50 percent of the state’s budget. How that money is allocated affects competitiveness, innovation and the vibrancy of local economies — all of which depend on the success of our local public schools. Bipartisan consensus is needed to equip each child with the basic tools to succeed.
In 2014, the disparity across school districts in the annual general-education revenue they receive per pupil is $1,800. This statewide opportunity gap is exacerbated by an increasing reliance on local property taxes to fund education, which results in spectacular benefits to school districts with greater commercial property wealth. When you add in local levies, the overall range in per-pupil annual spending among districts is nearly $7,000.
Sadly, the bulk of this inequity is not generated by student need, but by greed. The complexity of Minnesota’s school finance framework has insulated the system from pressure for reform. And you don’t need to be a political scientist to identify the connection between the state’s wealthiest school districts and communities of greater statewide political and economic influence. In the absence of any vocal dissent, legislators representing wealthier school districts — regardless of party — have not been motivated to significantly change a system benefiting their constituents.
Despite these obstacles, the Legislature finally passed a bill in the last session partly aimed at closing the education spending gap. While this was a positive step, the Legislature can do better. The reforms only slightly narrowed the overall spending gap between the very wealthiest and the very poorest districts.
This reality has prompted several prominent educational organizations to continue the call for more finance reform, including the Minnesota School Boards Association, Schools for Equity in Education and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
How to solve it? First, we need to put greater emphasis on the basic funding formula and re-examine the myriad categorical formula designations that often are unrelated to any rational need. Second, we need to increase state equalization of property taxes in districts where the commercial property base is low. Otherwise, identical local levies will continue to cost residential taxpayers significantly more in commercially poorer areas. Finally, we need to recognize that this is not a partisan issue.
Of course, not all school districts should receive an exactly equal or proportional share of general fund tax dollars. There is a broad spectrum of tangible educational need that decidedly impacts some districts more than others, and should continue to be addressed.
But these needs do not account for the current revenue gap, which pits half of the state’s districts against the other half and affects the ability of disadvantaged districts to attract and retain quality teachers, provide competitive course offerings, and continue to innovate. Minnesota simply cannot create a 21st-century economy under an educational rubric where half of its children and their communities are left behind.
This is a critical moment. After nearly a decade of belt tightening, the state now has a near billion-dollar surplus. This is creating political momentum to finally invest significant state funds in special education after decades of imposing costs on school districts through unfunded mandates — an admirable objective. However, alleviating the gross inequity in public education funding is equally important.
If the Legislature does not seize upon this moment to close the funding gap, it never will. Considering that this issue affects opportunity for thousands of children throughout the state, failing to take any action would be unconscionable.
Doug Birk is chairman of the St. Michael-Albertville School Board. He wrote this article on behalf of the board; the St. Michael-Albertville Principal Association; St. Michael-Albertville Education Minnesota; the St. Michael City Council, and the Albertville City Council.