Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Senate File 0422 Creates Huge New Unfunded Mandate by Phasing Out Compensatory Revenue

Earlier this week, (click here), I began a discussion of the reasons that some students cost more than others to educate. As I was writing my second post in the series, I received a notification of a hearing later this week on a bill, Senate File 422, which would begin to roll-back compensatory funding as a proposed solution to the education funding crisis. Compensatory funding is the money that school districts receive to pay for Minnesota's No Child Left Behind mandate that all children must reach a high level of proficiency regardless of the obstacles that would otherwise interfere with their educational success. Compensatory funding derives from a longstanding recognition in this State that its more costly to educate children who come to school far behind, than it is to educate students who come to school ready to learn. Regrettably, Senate File 422 is basically just another proposal to defund a mandate, without repealing the mandate.

There are some legislators who believe that school districts who receive compensatory funding are rolling in extra money. But this is not true. Most of these districts are actually the most financially stressed districts in Minnesota, because they tend to be districts with very high special education deficits. In most cases, when you net these districts special education deficits against their compensatory funding, you find that the districts are still deep in the hole, when both state mandates (special education and no child left behind) are netted out together.

In short, most of these districts consume their compensatory education revenue to pay for the other great unfunded mandate, special education, leaving them with nothing to address the NCLB proficiency mandate that compensatory revenue is supposed to pay for. For example, Brainerd receives $3.5 million in compensatory funding, but it carries a $4.4 million special education deficit. Bloomington receives $5.5 million in compensatory funding but carries an $8 million special education deficit. Mankato receives $2.6 million in compensatory funding but has a $4.2 million special education deficit. Each of these districts, and many others like them, are buried in a sea of state mandated red ink, because the legislature underfunds the special education mandate, by $5.5 million in Bloomington. By $4.2 million in Mankato. By $8.6 million in St. Cloud.

You might expect that Senators who are concerned about unfunded mandates in public education would be proposing to do something about the projected $700 million per year under-funding of the special education mandate. But no, they are actually sponsoring legislation further to impoverish those very districts who suffer the most from the State's massive unfunded mandates. The plan in SF 422 is to defund a second state mandate, and bury these districts even further with unfunded mandates.

Now for those of you who think that the mandate that all students must be educated to high levels of proficiency has no cost consequences, I have to tell you that you are living in a dream world. Achieving success in Minnesota's proficiency mandate requires extra mentoring, extra remedial instruction, more summer school, and a variety of other reforms that have costs attached to them. You cannot get something for nothing. This proficiency mandate, completely well intentioned, is a huge undertaking. It cannot be accomplished for free. Senate File 422 takes these costs off the backs of the taxpayer, and puts them onto the backs of children by forcing school districts to reallocate resources away from traditional average students who are coming to school ready to learn. Its a tax on children to pay for a gigantic unfunded mandate.

In my first post, I quoted extensively from a report by the conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation. The Foundation is an active proponent of school reform and has argued in favor of voucher funded private and parochial funding as a vehicle to close the achievement gap. The Foundation's 2006 report Fund the Child, argued persuasively that what ever delivery system we choose must recognize that meeting the national goal of educating all children to a high level of proficiency will require extra funding for those students who have high educational needs. The Foundation's report explains:

"Although we may wish that achieving this [proficiency] goal were easy for every student, numerous studies have shown that some students require more resources than others:
  • Some start behind because their lives prior to school did not provide them with the same educational opportunities as other children.
  • Some home circumstances present problems related to health, nutrition, parental support, and other conditions, all of which materially impact children’s performances.
  • Some have disabilities that lead them to require additional education services and attention.
  • Some are from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • Some are recent immigrants who had little formal education in their home countries"Then
In Minnesota, that extra funding is provided by the compensatory funding formula which seeks to provide additional funding based on the number of students who have high educational needs based on poverty, which is roughly (but not exactly) correlated with higher costs to reach the goal of universal proficiency.

The No Child Behind mandate in Minnesota, like other states, requires not merely that school districts meet higher levels of standards. It actually raises the standards, year after year. The chart below graphs the ever increasing proficiency standards adopted by Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively. Each year, the percentage of students who must meet the standards must increase, and each year, the required scores increase as well.

The proficiency standard in Minnesota requires all students to reach proficiency at a second year algebra level. How many of you genuinely believe that it is possible to get to the point where all students master second year algebra without substantially increased costs.

Frankly, I'm going to bet that a fair number of you never even took Algebra II, and a high percentage of you who did, couldn't meet the proficiency standard that Minnesota has demanded of all children. Minnesota's implementation of No Child Left Behind for mathematics not only demands that a significantly higher percentage of students perform at the proficient level in mathematics than ever before in history, it defines proficiency at significantly higher level than ever before. We are expecting students to perform proficiently at a second-year algebra level, when many of their parents were not even required to take or pass first year algebra. Trying to accomplish this at the same inflation adjusted price would be like trying to equip everyone with a private jet for the price of an automobile. If you are scoffing at that, just remember what algebra II consists of: factoring, elementary matrix algebra, solution of multiple linear equations, graphing of and solution of quadratic equations, inequalities, probability, and a whole lot more.

I want to be clear. There is evidence that we can do a much better job of educating more children at a very high level of mathematics. Some of the necessary changes require new teaching methods. Some of them require more classroom time. Some require more teachers who have strong subject matter backgrounds in mathematics in the earlier grades. And some require more mentoring, more parental support, more individual attention for students who are falling behind. Some of the necessary changes don't require more expense, but some require significantly greater expense, and the special help required for some students make those students more costly to educate than other students. If the State wants more students to perform proficiently, and that is the current requirement in Minnesota, then a much greater investment is going to be required for those students who would otherwise fall behind.

SF 422 is a really bad idea. Its more of the same from a legislature which has historically talked about eliminating unfunded mandates while actually doing the opposite.

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