K-12 funding reform needed

/ 10 December 2012 / eunice

Star Tribune Editorial, December 10, 2012 – For most of the last decade, there has been wide agreement that Minnesota’s complicated K-12 state funding formula needs work. To that end, yet another group of earnest education stakeholders has come up with a recommended model for funding public schools.

The committee, appointed by state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, wisely wants to simplify the system and reduce school district reliance on taxpayer-approved levies, which has created funding disparities across the state.

Most of the group’s suggestions are worthy goals. The trouble is that the plan, like several predecessors, would require a significant infusion of new state money — about $634 million more annually. And given the state’s projected $1.1 billion deficit, that’s likely a nonstarter.

The educators and school administrators who made up the Education Finance Working Group recommended that the state:

• Create a state funding pool by taking $300 per student from existing voter-approved operating levies.

• Increase basic state aid to $6,300 per student, from $5,224.

• Provide all-day kindergarten for all lower-income children at a cost of about $63 million.

• Increase state funding for special education by $150 million to $200 million.

• Reallocate about $102 million in integration aid to reach suburban and outstate areas that are increasingly diverse.

Under the recommended funding changes, some property owners would pay more than they currently pay, while others would pay less.

Some suburban areas with higher-valued homes and fewer challenged students could pay 8 to 30 percent more, while Minneapolis taxpayers would have a 3.5 percent higher tax bill. St. Paul, with so many government entities and nonprofits off the tax rolls, would break even. And in the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, property owners would pay about 12 percent less.

In total, every district would get an increase in state aid for schools, as well as some general fund relief for special education. After years of voting for referendums to improve their own schools, it’s likely that the only way to make this kind of redistribution acceptable to districts with higher property tax wealth would be to make sure that all districts get something for their kids.

This isn’t Minnesota’s first stab at improving school funding. In the 1970s, what became known as the “Minnesota Miracle” changed education financing to place more of the responsibility on the state. And in the early 2000s, the Legislature again took over a higher share of K-12 funding. However, at that time the state was sitting on a surplus. Since then, legislative policies and tight finances have eroded earlier levels of state support.

Few would argue with the Education Finance Working Group’s desire to simplify and create a more equitable model for education finance in Minnesota. The current system of “have” and “have not” districts is not in the best interests of the state.

Although the $634 million price tag on the full set of recommendations is unrealistic, the group’s work should aid the 2013 Legislature as it begins discussing K-12 funding reform.