On schools: Don’t be fearful; be concerned

/ 13 June 2012 / jennifer

Gerald Von Korff and Jim Hilbert, Star Tribune Counterpoint, June 13, 2012 –

Would it really be a legal intrusion to seek funding for what’s required?

Katherine Kersten writes ominously about a nefarious group of conspirators who allegedly have begun to lay the groundwork for a school finance lawsuit (“State poised to enter a legal danger zone,” June 10). She warns that it will somehow destroy public education and bankrupt the state.

The sad reality is that Minnesota’s school finance system clearly violates our state Constitution’s education clause. However, compliance with the Constitution would neither bankrupt state government nor stifle needed education reform.

Under Minnesota’s Constitution, the primary responsibility for determining the education that school districts must deliver rests with the Legislature. In recent decades, legislators, not the courts, have dramatically expanded what must be delivered by public schools.

Public educators are not demanding that courts increase state standards for an adequate education — they are pleading that the state pay for the mandates already in place.

It is becoming clearer that the state Constitution requires the Legislature to match mandated expenses with funding. Courts in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere are increasingly recognizing that legislatures violate their state constitutions when they base school funding formulas on political whim rather than on the actual cost of mandated services.

The special-education mandate illustrates the problem. In the 1950s, about a million disabled students nationally were excluded from public schools completely, and about another 3.5 million received inappropriate services.

Minnesota’s Legislature responded by mandating delivery of an adequate education to students with disabilities. The cost of delivering the required education has increased dramatically, but the Legislature has made no attempt to correlate costs and revenues.

Between 1999 and 2013, Minnesota’s mandated special-education costs will have risen from $937 million to $1.9 billion. During that same period, the funding deficit passed along to local schools will have grown from $353 million to $614 million per year. Similar deficits exist in many other state-mandated programs.

The special-education mandate currently forces our largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, to spend $31 million (or $700 per pupil) more than it receives for special-education aid, diverting resources meant for regular classroom instruction.

The Minneapolis district is currently forced to transfer $900 per pupil in funding meant for general classroom instruction to cover its special-education deficit, a number that has risen from $529 per student in seven years’ time. St. Paul’s special-education deficit is $838 per pupil.

Minnesota’s education system is not being bankrupted by advocates for constitutional compliance. It is being bankrupted by state policymakers who lack the political will to either fund the mandates they impose or adjust the mandates.

Litigation would not force the state to spend $2 billion on special education. Creating a cost-correlated system begins with making a conscientious effort to determine the cost of existing mandates. And reforming the delivery system and reassessing the level and number of mandated services should also be on the table.

But what the Legislature should not be able to do is to continue its practice of mandating a $2 billion special-education delivery system while providing only $1 billion to pay for it.

Mandating something expensive and funding it on the cheap is fiscally irresponsible, and it is difficult to understand why any true conservative would seek to defend it. The Constitution requires a thorough and efficient education system; the Legislature has provided us with neither.

Minnesota’s public-education community would like to avoid solving this problem in the courts. The best solution is for the Legislature to do its job.


Gerald Von Korff is an attorney and school board member in St. Cloud. Jim Hilbert is founder and executive director of the Center for Negotiation and Justice at William Mitchell College of Law.