This article by Doug Birk, School Board Chairperson and supported by St. Michael-Albertville School Board, St. Michael-Albertville Education Minnesota, St. Michael-Albertville Principal Association, St. Michael City Council and Albertville City Council was printed in the StarTribune last month.
When it comes to school finance reform, Minnesota can do better.
Today, similar children in similar school districts throughout Minnesota receive vastly different sums of per pupil education revenue based on where their parents choose to live. Our state’s policy for funding public education is grossly inequitable, irrational, and inexplicable.
No other legislative issue has a greater potential impact on the long-term quality of life and economic vitality of Minnesota. Every biennium Minnesota spends nearly $14 billion dollars on education- roughly 50% of the state’s budget. How that money is allocated affects educational competitiveness, innovation, the vibrancy of local economies that remain intimately tied to the success of our local public schools, and bipartisan consensus to equip each child the basic tools needed to succeed.
In 2014, the disparity in annual general education revenue per pupil between school districts is $1,800. This statewide opportunity gap is further exacerbated by the increasing reliance on local property taxes to fund education resulting in spectacular benefits to school districts with greater commercial property wealth. When you add in local levies, the overall range in per pupil annual spending between districts is nearly $7,000.
Sadly, the bulk of this inequity is not generated by student need, but greed. The complexity of Minnesota’s existing school finance framework has insulated the system from pressure for reform. And you don’t need to be a political scientist to identify the tangential connection between the state’s wealthiest school districts and communities of greater statewide political and economic affluence. In the absence of any vocal dissent, individual legislators representing wealthier school districts, regardless of party, have not been motivated to significantly change a system benefiting their constituents.
Despite these obstacles, the state legislature finally passed legislation in the last session partially aimed at closing the education spending gap. While a positive step, the legislature can do better. The reforms only slightly narrowed the overall spending gap between the very wealthiest and very poorest districts- districts previously unable to pass a local levy- and the majority of districts in the bottom 15% in per pupil spending did not fare much better than before.
This reality has prompted several prominent educational organizations to continue the call for more finance reform including the Minnesota School Board Association, Schools for Equity in Education, and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
So how do you solve it? First, we need to put a greater emphasis on the basic funding formula and re-examine the myriad of categorical formula designations that are often unrelated to any rational need. Second, we need to increase state equalization of property taxes in districts where the commercial property base is low. Otherwise, identical local levies will continue to cost residential taxpayers significantly more in commercially poorer areas. Finally, we need to recognize that this is not a partisan issue.
Of course, it won’t be a perfectly level playing field- not all school districts should receive an exactly equal or proportional share of general fund tax dollars. There is a broad spectrum of tangible educational need that decidedly impacts some school districts more than others. As a matter of state policy, these unique student challenges that vary between districts should continue to be addressed.
But these substantive needs do not account for the current revenue gap between the wealthiest and poorest school districts. This gap is pitting half of the state’s districts against the other half and affecting the ability of disadvantaged districts to attract and retain quality teachers, provide competitive course offerings, and continue to innovate.
In the current system of winners and losers, we all eventually lose. Minnesota simply cannot create a 21st century state economy under an educational rubric where half of its children and their communities are left behind.
This is a critical moment. After nearly a decade of belt tightening, the State now has a near billion dollar surplus. This surplus is creating great political momentum at the capital to finally invest significant state funds in special education after decades of imposing significant costs on school districts through unfunded federal and state mandates- an admirable objective. However, alleviating the gross inequity in public education funding is equally important.
If the state legislature does not seize upon this moment to address the significant inequity in per pupil education spending and attempt to close the gap it never will. The legislature’s work is not done. Considering this issue affects opportunity for thousands of children throughout the state, failing to take any action would be unconscionable. Our kids deserve better.