Birds are chirping and tree buds are opening — it must be spring in Minnesota. Unfortunately, as school board members, we can tell you that another spring ritual in Minnesota involves school districts sending layoff notices to hundreds of teachers and other staff. Minnesota law requires that layoff notices be sent now, before the Legislature has approved the biennial budget and school officials know what level of funding they will receive to operate their schools. School board members and superintendents are left to take their best guess at how the final budget negotiations at the Capitol will unfold.
This year, trying to estimate what the final education budget bill will look like is particularly challenging given the huge differences in the proposals put forth by the House, the Senate and the governor. The governor and the House are proposing an increase in the base funding formula that would cover projected inflationary cost increases over the next two years. The governor also proposes an investment in special education that would prevent the shortfall from growing, and the House proposal would actually reduce the special education funding shortfall. The House also proposes investments in the state’s English learner program as well as initiatives to recruit and retain teachers in shortage areas and diversify the school workforce.
The Senate E-12 education proposal, on the other hand, would provide a 0.5% increase per year in the base funding formula — not sufficient to cover inflation — and no increase in special education funding. Minnesota school districts are already redirecting about $700 million in general education revenue to cover the special education funding shortfall, and that amount will continue to grow. Suffice it to say that the staff receiving layoff notices would likely not be recalled if the Senate proposal prevails.
Senate leaders note that education funding under current law will increase by $711 million from the 2018-19 biennium to the 2020-21 biennium — an average annual change of 1.9%. That is accurate. However, that increase is driven by a projected increase in special education spending and an anticipated increase in student enrollment. While state spending on special education is projected to increase by $443 million next biennium, school district expenditures on special education are expected to grow even faster. In other words, the shortfall will continue to grow under current law.
The Department of Education projects that our public schools will serve an additional 27,000 students over the next two years — an enrollment increase that accounts for $217 million of the projected additional funding. Clearly, these increases will not result in any new per-pupil operating revenue for our school districts.
The reality is that more students throughout Minnesota have significant needs and challenges than ever before. The number of students eligible for English learner and special education services has risen significantly in recent years. We also have a growing number of homeless students. Our future prosperity and ability to compete successfully in the global economy is directly tied to our success in graduating all of our students from high school ready for college or career, regardless of their needs and challenges.
It is time to stop arguing about how much we spent last year or five years ago and focus instead on creating a funding system that provides reliable and equitable resources for our school districts. At a minimum, the governor and Legislators need to approve an education budget that provides an inflationary increase to the base formula and investments to reduce the growing special education funding shortfall. We need to ensure that our schools have the support staff needed to address the growing mental health and social and emotional learning needs of our students.
If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we also need to provide additional resources for our English learners, diversify our teacher workforce and invest in high-quality pre-kindergarten programming. Only a little over two weeks remain in the legislative session. It’s time to get to work.
Stephanie Levine is a member of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school board. Steve Adams is a member of the Hopkins school board. They are chair and past chair of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.