School Funding Suffers Despite Times of Plenty
by Senator John Marty
January 12, 2000

Last year, as the state budget process unfolded, I was struck by the disconnect between the debate at the capitol and the realities of Minnesota schools.

At the capitol, the talk was about Minnesota's generosity to schools and big increases in education funding. But in many schools, administrators began cutting back on programs for a lack of resources. One can always second-guess budget decisions of school boards, and they deserve careful scrutiny. But I find well-informed, frugal board members making tough decisions. During the last decade, schools lost ground to inflation and faced new challenges -- important challenges, but ones that cost a lot of money -- among them school security, special education, ongoing technology changes, English as a Second Language (ESL) needs, and a large statewide increase in the number of students.

In 1999, schools received more than inflationary increases, but nowhere near enough to make up for losses of recent years. The state seems to be telling parents "education is a top priority - but times are really tough." Times are too tough to do anything about school budget cuts? What about the repeat billion dollar surpluses?

We shouldn't spend a dollar more than necessary. Surplus money should be returned to taxpayers. But "surplus" is defined as the amount that remains after needs have been met. When schools are forced to cut successful education initiatives for a lack of money, it's clear that not all the state money is surplus. We are not talking about new education initiatives here, existing art classes, teachers' aides, and advanced math programs are being slashed.

Last year, it was a political choice to focus on reducing taxes instead of investing in schools, just as it was a political choice to give over half of the permanent tax cuts to the wealthiest 15%. Many people support that choice. But for those of us who believe a first-rate education system is our best investment in the future, it was a disappointing one.

The public cares about education. Polls show a willingness to invest money in schools. Yet most politicians prioritized bigger tax cuts instead of sufficient school funding. With the healthy economy, it would have been possible to make real improvements in schools and still cut taxes.

Supporters of education need to challenge state budget targets that force schools to make harmful cuts.

The Opposition is Strong

The opposition's stock political reply is that schools don't need more money, they need "reform." They have worked to define education funding as a waste of money.

Former Governor Carlson repeatedly said schools have enough money and don't need more. So what did he do? He put his daughter in a private school that cost several thousand dollars more than what he thought was needed by public schools.

Overcoming the opposition is not an easy challenge. Supporters of more school funding are dismissed as people making excuses for failing schools. One articulate advocate is the former superintendent of Mounds View Schools, Burt Nygren.

Dr. Nygren isn't someone who needs to make excuses. His district has some of the highest student test scores and one of the best graduation rates in the country. Nygren says, "understandably voters are unwilling to open their pockets to fund ineffective schools and expensive reforms that show few results." But Nygren couldn't be more clear. "It is fraudulent to look at public school performance and reform without looking at finances -- the need for more money."

Speaking Out Can Make a Difference

When it became clear that the state was about to pour $350 million of taxpayer money into a stadium subsidy, I and others encouraged the public to speak out. When the people speak out, they can change the political climate -- just ask the stadium lobbyists!

It's time to bring together all the people who care about schools. Rallying together, parents and teachers have the clout to change the political climate. They can force the governor and legislature to act.

If we can't create the political will to support education this year, what chance will we have in difficult times?

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