Minnesota schools need more, much more

/ 14 March 2013 / eunice

Tom Dooher, Bob Meeks and Gary Amoroso, Star Tribune Commentary, March 14, 2013 – The needs of our schools and our students go beyond additional financial resources, but educators of all kinds agree that sufficient funding is a necessary first step.

That’s why our classroom teachers, school board members and school administrators have formed an unprecedented alliance to support three legislative priorities.

These priorities will benefit all Minnesota students, from their first day in kindergarten until they graduate into the postsecondary program of their choice.

The advantages of a better-trained and more productive workforce will ripple through the Minnesota economy for decades, but we must act now. Minnesotans expect it.

Teachers have seen classrooms so overcrowded that students sit in the aisles and share desks. School board members have been forced to make cuts to vocational and technical programs, and to art, music and physical education, year after year. Parents now understand the link between a decade of bad school funding decisions in St. Paul and their children’s future. And they are getting angry.

Our political leaders have received the message. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget shows he values education. The early bills from the leaders in the House and Senate show their support as well. In fact, many of our priorities are simply more ambitious versions of proposals in that budget and those bills.

First, it’s time to start reducing class sizes and increasing access to cutting-edge technology and a rich and varied curriculum in more Minnesota schools. That will require the state to increase per-pupil spending, which has trailed inflation for a decade. Today’s per-pupil funding from the state is between $600 and $1,300 less than it was eight years ago, depending on how the inflation adjustment is calculated.

We are asking the Legislature for a 5 percent increase in the first year of the biennium and at least inflationary adjustments thereafter. Over two years, these increases would cost about $660 million.

Second, it’s past time for Minnesota to provide all of its students with the solid academic foundation that comes from free, all-day, every-day kindergarten. It will cost about $350 million over two years, but studies suggest it will pay off by improving proficiency at reading and math, reducing the achievement gap and increasing graduation rates.

Finally, Minnesota has the opportunity to create a cycle of continuous improvement for the state’s corps of teachers through the full funding of the 2011 teacher development and evaluation law.

However, unlike lowering class sizes and offering all-day kindergarten, the sophisticated evaluation system ordered by the 2011 Legislature is a mandate, not a choice. It’s also so expensive that it could absorb nearly all of the education funding increases proposed at the Legislature so far this session.

The cost to districts of the new student surveys, new evaluators, new training, new information technology systems, new data analysts, transforming teachers into peer reviewers, and all the other expenses required by the law has been estimated at more than $200 million a year starting in 2014-15.

The Legislature created this mandate during the negotiations to end the historic government shutdown of 2011. It’s now up to the 2013 Legislature to either pay for it or postpone implementation until lawmakers can provide adequate funding. However, Minnesotans need to understand that if the Legislature retains this unfunded mandate, at this cost, it will pressure districts to make more unpopular and damaging cuts to programs and staff.

Together, these three recommendations will cost more than $1 billion during the biennium, increasing K-12 spending by about 10 percent. It’s not enough to get back what our schools have lost to inflation. But it is enough to start retooling our public education system to meet the demands of a rapidly diversifying student population and a knowledge-based economy.

Critics will balk at the cost. They always do. But they need to answer this question: If we really believe public education is the engine of our economy, when are we going to start acting like it?

We can’t keep our foot off the gas and still expect to go anywhere.

Tom Dooher is president of Education Minnesota. Bob Meeks is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. Gary Amoroso is executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.