Commentary - Parents and taxpayers deserve the facts on education funding
By Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota
Several Republican legislators have pledged recently that they will campaign across the state against upcoming school levies. It is startling to see politicians intruding into local school issues that have been historically decided by local voters. Those decisions have been, and should be, made by the taxpayers in those communities.
It's even more alarming when you consider that 75 percent of this year's proposed school levies are only renewals. If they pass, they will not increase property taxes. If they are defeated, however, there will be significant cuts to those schools.
Legislators' intrusions into local referendum elections and their misleading claims about state funding increases have confused Minnesotans, as perhaps they were intended to do. Our schools did receive $50 per student increases in state aid this year and again next year, thanks to a bi-partisan agreement by Governor Dayton and legislative leaders. Those increases, however, do not make up for the cuts in real, per-pupil state aid during the previous years. Furthermore, 40 percent of the state's school aid payments will be delayed by the "shift," which will cause cash flow shortfalls in many school districts that will force additional borrowing costs on them.
As has been the case for the past eight years, the modest new funding doesn't even keep pace with the projected rate of inflation, further stressing the financial picture for districts. Between 2003 and 2011, the rate of inflation has been more than twice the rate at which education funding has grown. The result is that as costs have increased for transportation, books, and other essentials, schools' purchasing power has been greatly reduced.
I have been an educator for more than 20 years. During that time, I have rarely been in a school setting in which we were not making budget cuts. Over time, districts have been forced to eliminate important academic programs that better prepare our students for successful careers, as well as enrich their lives. Classes in music, art, world languages, advanced courses, gifted education and even physical education have been eliminated in many schools.
Other schools have resorted to four-day school weeks and higher teacher-to-student ratios. The declining purchasing power of our schools puts school boards and superintendents in the difficult position of either asking their communities to make up state funding reductions with higher property taxes or to make even deeper cuts in educational programs. Sometimes, they have been forced to do both.
Minnesota's Constitution requires the state - not local school boards - to provide a "uniform system of public
schools through taxation or other means." That Constitutional mandate for uniformity is threatened as the quality of a child's education is growing increasingly dependent upon which zip code he or she lives in, the property wealth of that community, and the district's ability to pass a levy.
Minnesota's education leaders in both the executive and legislative branches should be advocating on behalf of this Constitutional requirement of a uniformly excellent education for every student. If they can't bring themselves to be advocates for education, they should at least stay out of local school decisions outside of their legislative districts, and allow those parents and taxpayers to decide what is best for their children.