Relief, but not much: How forecasted surplus will affect schools

/ 8 March 2012 / jennifer

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, March 8, 2012 –

classroom desks


There will be a quiz.

Today, I offer you a news nugget that’s brief but important, followed by a handful of links to items Learning Curve is prepared to decree required reading. I expect you to click through, and there will be a quiz.

But first: Does news that a second state surplus was forecast last week mean that schools can start recalling laid off teachers, whittling class sizes down to something smaller than a college freshman English lecture section and stop asking parents to supply basics like copier paper and Kleenex?

No, and the very fact that you would ask petrifies some education policy types who are afraid that the public will mistake the anticipated wee uptick in funding for a windfall and take the heat off of Minnesota’s math-impaired lawmakers to come up with some long-term solutions.

“The worst thing that could happen is that people will think it’s new money,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. There will be some cash flow relief for some districts, but not much and nothing more, he emphasized.

Minnesota lawmakers have used school funding shifts for so many years now that even the most egg-headed among us have lost track of what happens when it’s actually possible to start repaying the shift, so a primer is probably in order.

First $5 million goes to reserve fund

Last November, an $868 million surplus was forecast and was used to replenish the state’s cash flow account and budget reserve. That still left the reserve fund below its statutory minimum of $653 million, so the first $5 million of February’s projected $323 million surplus goes to top it off.

The rest goes directly to school districts, beginning March 15. Alas, it’s going to be the equivalent of you or me having another $25 to send to VISA on a regular basis: Nice, sure, but no way to put food on the table.

The bump means districts will begin receiving 64.3 percent [PDF] of their monthly state aid payments instead of the 60 they’re been receiving since last year’s shutdown-ending deal to balance the state budget by withholding 40 percent of school funding. Most districts will simply send this money on to their creditors.

To put this further in perspective: Districts are still being asked to do with a shift that’s 5.7 percent bigger than the 70-30 shifts that they saw in the latter years of the Pawlenty administration.

Update: House GOP leaders today are expected to announce a proposal to use $430 million from the reserve fund to accellerate paying back the shift. Education Finance Committee Chair Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, told Minnesota Public Radio it makes financial sense to use cash on hand instead of forcing districts to continue to borrow. Staff analysts said they are concerned the move could force the state to engage in short-term borrowing, while DFLers said they wished leadership would instead seek a way of repaying the entire $2.4 billion holdback.

Required reading

And now I turn the rest of this post over to provocative journalism from others. Like this riveting cautionary tale from the Washington Post story about a teacher whose May 2011 performance evaluation was so sparkling her peers were urged to watch and learn.

“Two months later, she was fired.

“[Sarah] Wysocki, 31, was let go because the reading and math scores of her students didn’t grow as predicted. Her undoing was ‘value-added,’ a complex statistical tool used to measure a teacher’s direct contribution to test results. The District and at least 25 states, under prodding from the Obama administration, have adopted or are developing value-added systems to assess teachers.”

Just in case you missed it: Minnesota is one of those 25 states.

Confessions of a ‘bad’ teacher

A similar story, constructed around a host of horror stories, appeared in Monday’s New York Times. On Saturday, the same paper published an equally compelling first-person story entitled “Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher.”

“… On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching ‘unsatisfactory,’ checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an ‘A’ rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

“… Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my ‘bad’ teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.”

Minnesota is also one of the states where lawmakers are considering dramatic changes to the way in which teacher seniority factors into layoffs, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thus also steer you to an op-ed from Tuesday’s Star Tribune not about evaluation per se but about an equally controversial extension: Using the data to make personnel decisions.

It’s a first-person account of a meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton and a critique of the mainstream DFL’s response to a proposal to end “last-in, first-out,” or LIFO, penned by self-described bleeding heart Lynnell Mickelsen – who is both a very funny writer and the founder of a group of parents and community activists who would like teacher contract reform in Minneapolis.

(Agree with her or not, you have to acknowledge that Mickelsen has done the unprecedented by working both the Book of Revelations and the term “lady parts” into a commentary on education reform.)

Job satisfaction is low

If you’ve paused and clicked on any of these, this last item will come as no surprise: Education Week yesterday reported that teacher job satisfaction is lower than it has been at any point in the last two decades.

Just 44 percent of teachers surveyed are “very satisfied” with their jobs, down from 59 percent in 2009. Nearly a third are likely to leave the profession in the next five years.

“The report highlights a variety of other factors associated with low job satisfaction as well. For instance, teachers with low job satisfaction are less likely than those with high job satisfaction to say they receive adequate professional development from their school or district. Less satisfied teachers are also more likely to say their schools have experienced layoffs, reductions in programs such as art or music, reductions in health or social services for students, and increases in class sizes.

“The ‘correlation between job satisfaction and these factors suggests that the current economic climate may be contributing to the decrease in professional satisfaction,’ the report states.”

Which brings this post tidily back to where it started, doesn’t it?