Editorial: Legislative session stalled on K-12

  • Updated: May 20, 2010 - 6:52 PM

Funding shifts, lack of policy action put progress on hold.

There's not much to applaud about what the governor, Legislature and teacher union leaders did -- or, more accurately, didn't do -- for K-12 education in the legislative session that ended this week.

Election-year posturing, big egos, obstructionism and an unwillingness to compromise got in the way of doing anything meaningful to advance academic progress in Minnesota schools. Important reforms fell by the wayside when lawmakers failed to pass a K-12 bill at all.

It's disappointing that after months of discussion, none of the policy changes were adopted that might have made Minnesota a stronger contender to receive up to $172 million in federal Race to the Top education grants. After losing out on the first round of funding, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Department of Education pushed for innovations that would have strengthened a second application. Among them were alternative teacher licensing, better educator evaluations and aligning those evaluations with student performance.

The licensing issue was a major bone of contention. The governor and supporters dug in and wouldn't budge. Then teachers union leaders at Education Minnesota launched an e-mail and media campaign against the idea, arguing that the proposed new path to teaching would dilute educator quality. The battle over that single issue absorbed political capital and helped ensure that the entire cause of reform got caught in the web of election-year politics.

The battle has outlived the session. On Wednesday, Pawlenty and the Republican Party lambasted Education Minnesota and some DFLers for not passing reform, in the absence of which the state decided not to reapply for Race to the Top funds.

Clearly, a lot of positioning is being done heading into the election campaign, as each party portrays its relationship with the teachers union (alliance in the DFL leadership's case; confrontation for most in the GOP) as proof of a bottom-line commitment to students and families.

But simply being "Dr. No'' on either side does little to improve education.

The Legislature also failed to change the math test required for graduation to an end-of-course exam. And significant modifications in rules governing charter school facilities and governance remain undone.

Despite all of the incompletes, some education leaders breathed a sigh of relief because state funding for K-12 wasn't reduced. Balancing a $3 billion deficit produced significant cuts for many state functions. However, by not passing an education finance bill, lawmakers left the current student funding formula in effect. That amounts to about $14 billion over two years.

But even standing pat on state funding can result in program cuts for districts. State funding may stay the same, but district expenses don't.

In addition, the Legislature approved another $208 million in funding shifts for K-12, adding to more than $1.7 billion in state funding already being delayed. Withholding those payments allows the state to balance its books for the current year. But those delays have consequences.

Late payments from the state mean some districts will have to borrow money to make payroll and pay other bills. That could cost school districts $20 million per year in interest payments -- dollars that could be better used in the classrooms.

So while the shift helped balance the state's budget -- for now -- it will still likely result in higher costs or fewer services for districts and taxpayers. Some school boards will turn to citizens for increased funding through local levies. And many districts will still make significant program cuts.

In education, as elsewhere, the Legislature and Pawlenty pushed problems into the future instead of facing them today. Minnesotans should demand better from candidates who seek their votes in November.

  • IMPACT OF SHIFTS

    "There aren't many superintendents out there who believe they'll be getting the money the Legislature has promised back. The shift will cost about $20 million a year in interest payments -- that equals 400 teachers. So we may not have had a state cut, but we could pay for the shift by having fewer teachers.''

    CHARLIE KYTE, executive director, Minnesota Association of School Superintendents

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