Governor's recommended E-12 budget would do little to help struggling students and schools

The future success of our state’s economy hinges on our E-12 school system. Yet Minnesota has work to do to ensure all children have the opportunity to learn and succeed. There are large racial and income disparities in educational achievement. Low-income children are twice as likely to not be ready for kindergarten compared to children from families with the highest incomes. Business leaders recognize that closing this gap is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do: the Itasca Project, a group of about 40 Minnesota CEOs, asserts that reducing racial and income disparities is critical to preserving Minnesota’s strong economy and business competitiveness.

Making sure every student succeeds is one of the fundamental challenge before policymakers, but I can’t help but feel that this important topic is getting lost in the black hole-that-is-the-budget-deficit.

Certainly schools across the state are in survival mode after years of budget austerity and cuts to programs and staff. State funding for E-12 education has actually declined since 2003, dependence on local property taxes to fund education has increased and school revenues have dwindled. (see our analysis of state spending on E-12 in the 2000s for more on this). Just recently the Rochester school board closed their latest budget shortfall by eliminating 30 teaching positions and increasing class sizes from Kindergarten to grade 6. The Anoka-Hennepin school district, which has a $15.8 million budget deficit, slashed 130 teacher jobs and will cut down on textbook purchases, bus services and other expenses.

In the Governor’s state of the state address last month, he touted that he would “improve” E-12 education, which would be one of the few budget areas to receive more money. Yet few of the Governor’s budget recommendations (read them yourself here) address educational disparities, instead focusing on bumping up funding for schools with good test scores while students in other schools are left behind:

  • The most substantive recommendation from the Governor on E-12 education is to turn back the clock to 2003 and re-enact a budget gimmick we used the last time the state faced such a large deficit. The Governor would shift over $1.2 billion in state aid to school districts that is supposed to go to schools in the coming budget biennium to the FY2012-13 biennium. Sounds like a relatively painless accounting sleight of hand, right? Not quite, it’s more like a taking-away-of-the-buck from already cash-strapped school districts, which could force some into drawing down their cash reserves or short-term borrowing (made more expensive by tight credit markets – the Governor’s own budget points this out). Bottom line: This measure is a short-term fix for the state’s budget woes, just delays the deficit problem to the next biennium, and may worsen school district finances. Note: As in 2003, I expect the DFL budget proposal will include this budget gimmick too.
  • Spends more money on expanding the Governor’s Q-Comp program to all school districts, but partially pays for it via higher local property taxes. The Q-Comp program is a 2005 initiative from the Governor that involves restructuring teacher pay, professional development and performance pay. Recent reports from the Legislative Auditor and the State Education department have differing things to say about whether this program improves student achievement. Currently, less than a quarter of all school districts participate in Q-comp – the Governor wants to require all school districts to participate (not clear if the teachers’ union has a say in this). The expansion would cost the state more than $40 million in FY 2011, and $109 million in FY 2012-13. However, though the state would require each school district to apply to the Q-Comp program, it would not entirely pay for Q-comp funding:under the Governor’s plan, 35% of Q-Comp funding would come from an “optional”  local levy – that is, the school district would be authorized to increase local property taxes to pay for the Q-comp program. So, no tax increases at the state level, but local tax increases are ok…?
  • Eliminates the Arts High School at the Perpich Center for Arts Education. The St. Paul-based school, which is a public, tuition-free school for 11th and 12th graders with an arts-centered education, would be turned into a charter school. Net savings to the state: $2.2 million in FY 2010-11.
  • Spends $91 million on schools that improve test scores as part of a new “pay for performance plan.” The program would reward charter schools and school districts that have increases in certain standardized test scores with more general education revenue. This leaves out a swath of schools, including those schools where all students are proficient in test scores, as well as schools that need the most help getting their test scores up.
  • Dedicates a modest amount of money to various programs to establish stricter teacher licensing requirements and new training programs, but on the other hand would create a less rigorous “alternative route” to teacher licensure. Commissioner Seagren noted in testimony to the House E-12 committee that 40% of teachers will retire in the next 10 to 12 years, and they need to be proactive in filling the gap. I’m sure we are all for well-trained teachers, I was just left a bit confused by the Governor simultaneously proposing greater standards and requirements to become a teacher, while proposing an alternative route to teacher licensure that is less rigorous. Beyond addressing teacher licensure, the Governor would spend $2 million on creating online courses for Advanced Placement coursework training for teachers.
  • Spends $10 million on a new pilot program for an intensive summer school for 8th graders that are tested as not yet proficient in math or reading. This would reach 2,000 students in FY 2010 and 4,000 students in FY 2011 (there about 63,000 public school 8th graders in Minnesota). This additional spending, though small and only a summer program, is at least targeted towards helping struggling students.

In summary, few of the Governor’s new E-12 spending initiatives are targeted towards lessening educational disparities. His most substantive budget recommendation is a budget gimmick to delay some of the budget deficit pain. In that sense, his recommendations fall far short of addressing the central challenge facing our state today.

-Katherine Blauvelt

About Katherine Blauvelt

Katherine Blauvelt served as the Minnesota Budget Project’s policy analyst from 2007 to 2009.
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