Jay Kiedrowski, the former Minnesota Finance Commissioner tells a story about his father. As I recall his words: "My father went to Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis, where he played saxophone in the school band. He came from a large family, ten kids, so money was tight for them. The family could not afford a saxophone, so he used a school instrument. He wore a band uniform provided by the school, and received lessons from the school."
Then Kiedrowski makes his point: "and that was during the Great Depression."
Seventy years later, our society is not so poor. When $50,000+ Humvees and $5000 widescreen, high-definition TVs are selling at a brisk pace, one might even say we are an affluent society. Although it is not shared by everyone, in comparison to the Great Depression, we have unimaginable prosperity.
Yet Minnesota schools no longer provide free music lessons to students. In fact, many schools charge a hefty fee to play in the band, go out for track, or participate in any extra-curricular program. Schools are dropping their elementary art and music teachers, deferring maintenance, and cutting the already sparse ranks of guidance counselors.
These days, schools aren't expanding their educational programs or hiring more teachers. Schools in every corner of the state are cutting back sharply. They have little choice; budget reserves are gone. The dollars simply aren’t there.
Some high schools are forcing all students to replace one class with a study hall to reduce the number of teachers they need. We are not talking about new education initiatives here, existing art classes, teachers’ aides, and advanced math programs are being slashed.
All this in the "brainpower" state?
The prospects for the future don't look any better. In January, Governor Pawlenty announced that his budget would give more funding to schools. He said, "these increases will more than cover inflation and allow schools to move forward with change and reform." Schools have studied the governor's proposals and concluded that it does not even provide them with enough revenue to keep up with inflation.
It is ironic that at Vadnais Heights Elementary, where the governor made his enthusiastic statement about his proposal, the school was so desperate for money last year that parents actually put together a fundraising effort to raise money to hire an additional fourth grade teacher. Is the governor proud to offer schools less than enough to offset inflation, as schools are reaching the bottom of the barrel financially?
According to Mary Cecconi, state director of Parents United Network, "the administration's budget adds only $184 million in state aid for the biennium. This doesn't even make up for education funding lost when the Legislature cut $185 million in 2003."
Opponents of public school funding argue that we have smaller class sizes now than when they were young. We spend more, yet they claim we receive a poorer result. They think this proves that more money doesn't do any good. Many of them want to see schools face even deeper cuts.
That simplistic thinking ignores the reality that schools are doing an outstanding job with many students even while they face growing challenges -- more students with mental and physical health problems, many students who do not speak English at home, homeless kids who bounce from school to school, dramatically higher healthcare costs, state and federal mandates for special education and testing requirements, new needs for school security, and ever-changing technology -- none of this is the fault of the children, who suffer from the cuts.
One first grade teacher, in a typical situation, told me that when she started teaching almost thirty years ago, she had 34 students in her class, significantly more than the 27 she has now. But, due to the large number of non-English speaking students and students with special needs, it was much easier to succeed with the larger number back then. In fact, she said that teaching just 20 of her students now would be at least as challenging as 34 in the past.
Certainly, budget decisions of school boards deserve careful scrutiny. But I see well-informed, frugal board members making tough decisions. If we want to see our schools improve, we need parents, teachers, and school boards to spend their time looking for ways to strengthen the schools. Instead, they spend their time trying to raise additional money to keep the schools open.
Our economy thrived because earlier generations of Minnesotans invested in schools. Even in the depths of the depression, Minnesota invested in a quality education system. The choices ahead are not easy. The state will need more revenue in order to provide money for schools. Several years ago, the legislature and governor made a political choice to deliver big tax cuts. Now, when our schools are in financial distress and the state budget faces a deficit, the governor sticks with his no new taxes mantra.
We have a governor willing to sacrifice our schools in order to score political points with the Taxpayers' League. As the story of Jay Kiedrowski illustrates, the problem is not a lack of resources; it is a lack of political will.