Minnesota schools get money and mandates

  • Article by: SONDRA ERICKSON and KELBY WOODARD
  • Updated: September 4, 2013 - 7:16 PM

But this won’t fix what’s wrong in the education system. It hasn’t so far.

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Photo: Kurt Strazdins , MCT

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New money for education has once again joined Minnesota kids at the start of another school year, but not without the fine print of new mandates and significant strings attached. Between our current budget and the previous one passed in 2011, schools will see $680 million in additional revenue from the state above and beyond the projected base budget. In the last 10 years, total state education appropriations have increased by $3.4 billion, or 31 percent.

K-12 education makes up the largest part of our state’s budget, just over 40 percent of the general fund. In 1965, nearly 30 percent of school funding was paid for by the state, and today that number is well over 60 percent. Minnesota’s taxpayers will cover more than $15 billion in state aid to school districts for the next two years to supplement the billions local property taxpayers will provide to their school boards.

This has many of us in the Legislature asking whether we are getting the return on our financial commitment that taxpayers, parents and students deserve.

The reality is that we have not seen test scores, graduation rates or other core measures of academic progress increase proportionally to our financial commitment to education. In fact, newly released test scores showed statewide student proficiency in reading has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points. On top of that, the achievement gap that depicts the wide divide in student performance between racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups continues to cut opportunities short for far too many Minnesota kids.

So what’s happening? All too often, more money comes with more state control and mandates. These mandates take decisions away from parents, teachers and local school administrators and give them to state bureaucrats in St. Paul. But if the unique needs of students in each community are to be met, decisions need to be made by the members of that community.

The Legislature cannot and should not be a so-called “state school board.” Dictating policies, then threatening state takeover and loss of funding, is not the answer. Yet, these are precisely the practices put in place by the Democratic majorities last session. More and more education dollars that should be dedicated to the classroom will instead be wasted on unaccountable bureaucrats in St. Paul.

As parents ourselves, we know our public school teachers and staff make daily sacrifices to help our youngest generation succeed in a changing world. In order to get an honest return on our financial commitment, state government must also change with the times.

Our top-notch teachers deserve recognition and job security when their students succeed — and not punishment simply by the day and time their contract was signed. Unfortunately, Gov. Mark Dayton and Democrats continue to support the damaging “last in, first out” model for teachers. Innovative programs such as Teach for America that place committed new leaders into some of our most challenging schools should be encouraged, not attacked by the education elite for political purposes.

As many Minnesota students fail to meet the standards for high school graduation and even those who do graduate find themselves unprepared for higher education, we should look for real solutions to help them meet and exceed our high standards. Instead, Dayton and Democrats eliminated GRAD standard tests.

Parents of children in poorly performing schools deserve better options, and we need to be honest about the fact that Minneapolis-St. Paul school districts get far more funding at the expense of rural Minnesota. Yet, Democrats continued their status quo of simply increasing funding with no reform.

As policymakers, we should partner with school leaders to implement real education reforms. Minnesota students deserve more than hollow talking points.

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Sondra Erickson, of Princeton, and Kelby Woodard, of Belle Plaine, are members of the Minnesota House. They serve as the Republican leads on the Education Policy and Education Finance committees, respectively.

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