Thursday, January 14, 2010

State Senate Democrats Pursue a losing strategy for Public Education

In the last legislative session, the Senate Democrats proposed to cut public education by 7 percent. Minnesota Public Radio quoted the Senate Education Committee Chair, defending the proposed cuts as follows:

Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, the chair of the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division, said he's not happy with the cuts, but they're necessary given the financial circumstances.

The Senate education committee would have reduced school funding by $972 million, but would have used federal stimulus funding to cushion the blow, temporarily. After allocating stimulus, the Senate proposal, if adopted, would have cut public education funding by $273 per student. Many Democrats thought this was a political ploy, but actually it appears that Senate DFL leadership favors cutting public education in order to fund increases in the State's ballooning health care budget. Last budget year, the Governor and the House DFL leadership, spearheaded by Representative Greiling, blocked the Senate's attempt to slash public education. Recently, Representative Greiling warned that possibly this year, the Governor would realign himself with Senate Democrats I predict, however, that Governor and House will hold firm. If the Senate continues to adhere to its position, Senate Democrats will pay a heavy price at the polls. Democrats, most of them, are not going to look kindly on elected officials who put their name to legislation that slashes public education funding. They will be handing a powerful weapon at the ballot box to Republicans next November.

When I came to this community, the area was represented by Democrats, mostly. Over a decade, one by one, Democrats were defeated and replaced by Republicans, as Democrats were perceived as having lost touch with the values and priorities that most people in this community held. Then, in the past five years, the Democratic party has become competitive in Central Minnesota once again, and one of the key reasons has been that the Democrats have been perceived as supportive of public education. But its easy to lose touch in St. Paul, and some have concluded that the Democratic base will tolerate the financial destruction of public education and vote DFL no matter what. I think that they are making a huge mistake. There are a lot of core democrats, and a whole bunch of independents in Central Minnesota, who will not agree with the financial evisceration of public education. They know that the future of this State depends upon a strong public education system.

By proposing to cannibalize public education funding, the Senate Democratic leadership was seeking to protect the ballooning growth in the portion of the State's budget that goes to health. In recent years, the percentage of the State’s budget spent for K-12 Education has been shrinking, even though enrollment has been increasing. Only a few years ago, K-12 Education represented 45% of the State budget. For the current biennium it is 40% of the budget, and is forecast to shrink further At the same time, the State's Health Care budget increasing at 8.5% per year. The State Budget Commission's report warns that “...state payments for direct health care services are the fastest growing segment of the state’s budget and consume a greater share of available resources each year.” It goes on to say:

In FY 2007, about one out of every five state general fund dollars were spent on public health care programs—including Medical Assistance (the state’s Medicaid program), General Assistance Medical Care, and chemical dependency treatment entitlement grants. If current growth rates in state health care spending continue unchecked over the next 25 years, two out of every three state general fund dollars will go toward healthcare.

The plan to keep increasing the state health budget by reducing public education is a losing idea. At the rate that the health budget is increasing, it will consume all of the rest of the State budget, eventually. Soon, as the state health budget surpasses public education as a share of the budget, the increases in state health spending will force all other aspects of the budget to freeze, and then begin to fall. Its time for political leaders to take out their calculators and do some simple arithmetic.

This idea, concocted by Senate leadership is all the more troublesome, because evidently the State Senate leadership believes that the State can slash public education funding, but at the same time local school districts should continue to increase teacher compensation. Evidently, they believe that they can have their cake and eat it too: cut public education while convincing teachers that Democrats are their friends. But this cut-education-and raise-compensation position will lead to massive cuts in teaching position, increases in class size, and gradual destruction of public education. Cutting public education is a bad idea, but cutting public education while increasing compensation is an even worse idea. Its a bad idea for children, and a bad idea for the educational professionals who work in public schools. And its a losing idea for Minnesota and in the next campaign season.

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