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
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?