Saturday, March 26, 2011

Panic in the Education Lifeboat Leads to Tossing Some Overboard

House and Senate are confronting a statewide financial crunch. Huge increases in the health care budget, the banking crisis and recession, combined with a decision that the state will not look to new revenues, has led the House and Senate to inflict significant financial pain on K-12 education. State mandated special education expenditures are slated to grow significantly during the next biennium , but the House and Senate are proposing not to fund these increases, leaving local districts with significant unfunded but mandated special education costs ($700 million per year). Last year, the State increased local districts contributions to state employee pensions, but provided no additional revenue to cover those shortfalls. Although employee pay and benefit increases moderated some in the last biennium, any increase in employee compensation had to come from cuts, because the state formula increase was zero in the last biennium. Across the State, districts made significant, often unprecedented cuts, to cover the shortfalls in education funding.

The Education Community has begun to act like a group of mariners in a lifeboat running out of fresh water. Instead of working together to fight for the education of all children, instead of insisting that the legislature perform its constitutional duty to educate all children, many panicked educators and their advocates are beginning to whisper to their legislators "save us, throw other districts over the lifeboat." There is good reason for panic. Anoka, the State's largest District cut about 70 teachers last year along with 47 staff, and it is scheduled to cut more in the coming year. Lakeville, which just provided a generous settlement to its employees, has suddenly been thrust into a downward fiscal spiral caused by declining enrollment. Districts all over the state are looking at unacceptable cuts that will inflict deep and lasting damage to Minnesota's educational infrastructure.

Some Districts have convinced local legislators to provide them a temporary boost with special earmarks, exempting them from some of the pain. Here are some earmarks inserted into the House Omnibus bill.

District Earmark
Anoka Hennipen $4,200,000
Rosemount AV $3,800,000
South Washington $1,900,000
Rochester $1,100,000
Elk River $1,800,000
Lakeville $1,200,000

These districts rightly point out to their local legislators that their children will suffer tremendous and unacceptable cuts if they have to share the pain that the House and Senate have in mind. They have identified significant unfairness in state funding, by pointing to problems in the funding system that impact them. Legislators are being convinced to help out some districts by taking money away from others. One unfairness is being addressed by making other unfairness worse. All of this is done in the context of trying to convince legislators who come from districts "like us" that the children in districts who look like our kids are getting a raw deal financially as compared to school districts with children who are different from "our kids." The legislature has been convinced by districts who don't have high numbers of disabled children in their district to pull money away from special education funding, and to shift that money into regular education. As a result, some districts will benefit from a very small funding increase in the general formula, and other districts will pay for that increase with much larger special education deficits.

In almost every other year, educators would come together and tell the legislature that the education community believes that we must provide adequate funding to address the needs of all students, whether they live in our own communities, whether they look like our children, or whether the children are poor and powerless, or upper middle class. But this year, panic has set in on the education lifeboat, and some have decided that would be easier to pitch some kids overboard rather than to advocate that the legislature meet its constitutional responsibility to educate all children. When panic sets in on the lifeboat, dehydrated mariners resort to rationalizations as to why they need more water right now, and other mariners don't, and so on. In the face of this growing everyone for himself atmosphere, our board of education has written a letter to the education community urging that we work together. K-12 has a special standing in the Constitution. The authors of the Constitution foresaw a day when there would be pressure to rationalize in this way. They expected us to resist this temptation. We need to stand together and make sure that the children in all districts, regardless of what they look like, or whether their representatives are republicans, democrats, urban or rural, have the resources they need to succeed. Here is the text of our letter:
During this legislative session, some in the education community have argued that K-12 education must recognize that the State of Minnesota can no longer meet its responsibility to educate all children. During the financial crisis, some have begun to argue that educating students who live in poverty, students with disabilities, and refugees and students who come to Minnesota speaking no English is just too expensive. That has led to an effort in the legislature to support a massive revenue transfer from school districts with high rates of poverty and disabilities to school districts with much lower poverty and disabilities.

We are hearing that we can solve Minnesota's education problems by delinking compensatory funding from the formula. We are hearing that integration revenues are a waste of money because we haven't closed the achievement gap yet. We are hearing that the solution to the funding problem of smaller districts is to take money out of special education and put it on the formula. We are writing to express our belief that this approach is not worthy of the Minnesota education community.

The House Omnibus Education Bill funds an increase in the formula by taking money out of special education. School districts negatively impacted will not be able to cut special education. They will be required to take that money out of the formula. Already, in our District we transfer about $900 from each student in our district to cover the state mandate deficit, despite the fact that we have frozen total special education costs for four years. The cuts in special education will negate completely our formula increases, so that other districts with far smaller special education deficits will get a larger net increase. We don 't want to take money from those districts: we want all districts to have the resources that they need.

If we are to meet the State's Constitutional responsibility to educate all children, we need to make sure that public dollars are spent efficiently. But we cannot meet our responsibilities by defunding the programs that are necessary to close the achievement gap or to educate children with disabilities. We would urge those who represent the education community to come together and join in a common effort to provide appropriate relief on the formula and on categorical funding. Won't you join with us in fighting together for the education of all children in Minnesota by contacting your legislators and other legislative leaders? We cannot assure that all children thrive unless we provide adequate funding appropriate to educational need.

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