If Minnesotans hoped the contentious state budget debate ended in July when the legislature and governor negotiated a final budget deal, they will be disappointed. While the government shutdown is a thing of the past, the compromise that ended it has led to a new round of finger-pointing by state leaders, as well as cities, schools, and others affected by the budget. On the issue of K-12 funding, the unusually high number of referendums this November is adding more fuel to the broader budget debate.
One superintendent recently wrote that 130+ districts are seeking operating levies this year “due to the lack of adequate funding and due to the state borrowing 40 percent of state aid as a method to balance their budget.” According to the Brainerd Dispatch, the MN Department of Education agrees that “levy requests could also be tied to state leaders’ decision earlier this summer to help fill a $5 billion budget hole by delaying payment of about $2 billion in education money.” And MinnPost recently wrote: “Left to their own devices by the Legislature, several school districts are asking local taxpayers to pay more”.
The referendum blame game is convenient for local education officials, but the arguments behind it are unfortunately more spin than substance.
If districts are truly seeking tax increases at least in part because of the new state budget, then those districts also possess the extraordinary power to see into the future, because the majority of them were planning their referendums long before the current state budget was finalized, and in many cases had even decided on the exact request.
Regardless of how one feels about the broader budget compromise, it’s difficult to claim that K-12 was given short shrift. K-12 Education spending makes up 40 percent the budget, by far the largest piece of the $34.3 billion general fund. Of course, the state is once again relying on a “funding shift” (or delay) to balance the budget, which is both short-sighted and bad public policy. However, the state also boosted basic general education revenue of $50/pupil for the 2011-2012 school year and an additional $50 per pupil next year, more than enough to cover borrowing costs for districts with insufficient reserve funds.
In a politically turbulent year in which the state faced an historic deficit, K-12 funding wasn’t spared, it was boosted.
Even the broader claim that the state has underfunded K-12 in recent years is dubious. According to the most recent Census data, per pupil funding in Minnesota elementary and secondary schools is 5.7 percent above the national average ($11,098 versus $10,499). And while federal aid and local sources make a sizable contribution to our K-12 system, the state provides approximately 66 percent of all K-12 funding in Minnesota. Only four states pay for a larger share of their K-12 system.
Meanwhile, the state has largely stagnant math and science scores, a massive and growing achievement gap, an outmoded teacher tenure system that ties the hands of local school officials, and too many politicians who zealously protect an unacceptable status quo. So it’s true, Minnesota’s public education system has plenty of problems, but a lack of state funding isn’t one of them.