Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Letter Challenges Governor's Education Funding Task Force to Follow the Minnesota Constitution

R I N K E - N O O N A N

TELEPHONE 320-251-6700

April 18, 2011

Education Finance Working Group
Minnesota Department of Education
Peggy Ingison and Tom Nelson, Co-Chairs
Minnesota Department of Education

The purpose of this letter is to urge that as you address Minnesota’s K-12 funding issues, that you adopt a recommendation that complies with the Education Clause of the Minnesota Constitution. The current funding system in the state of Minnesota is plainly and unequivocally unconstitutional under guidelines established by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1993). If you fail to address these issues directly, any recommendations that you make will not be meeting the fundamental requirements of the Minnesota Constitution and will be destined to be overturned.

In its Skeen decision, the Supreme Court found that education is a fundamental right under the Minnesota Constitution and that right is enforceable in the Courts. Funding systems which restrict that right, or which result in unequal ability to deliver the basic education required by law, are unconstitutional.

The Court wrote:
we hold that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution, not only because of its overall importance to the state but also because of the explicit language used to describe this constitutional mandate. While a fundamental right cannot be found "[a]bsent constitutional mandate," Rodriguez, 411 U.S. at 33, 93 S.Ct. at 1296, the Education Clause is a mandate, not simply a grant of power.
Unfortunately, both executive branch and legislative branches of Minnesota have failed to adhere to the requirements of Skeen. Perhaps this is because the Skeen decision has been widely misunderstood. The Skeen denied relief to the plaintiffs simply because they admitted that financial flaws existing in 1990 were not interfering with provision of the minimum required education as defined by the State.

The plaintiff districts in Skeen were compelled to make this admission – that they could deliver the basic education mandates of the State – because in 1990 the State of Minnesota had no minimum proficiency requirements. In 1990, a local district could lawfully graduate students who were functionally illiterate, and many did. The only State requirements in Minnesota were that a local district offer a basic curriculum, not that all students must be educated to proficiency.

Having admitted that they could comply with the minimal state education requirements, the plaintiff districts in Skeen instead claimed that their districts were required to pay a slightly higher mil rate to fund optional school programs desired by their local district. At that time, local school districts were providing these extra optional programs through a system of “excess levies.” The name excess levy signified the fact that the voters were being asked to endorse extra education beyond that required by state law. This fact is fundamental to an understanding of why Minnesota’s current funding system is constitutionally deficient. The current system underfunds mandated programs, and the underfunding is not fairly distributed. Some districts have sufficient funding to provide all students with an education which meets state proficiency standards, and others do not. Almost all districts are forced to try to raise funding, not for extras, but to keep basic necessary programs, and in some districts voters are denying children in their community the funding that clearly is required to supply a basic education. This is not a mere equal taxation issue: it runs to the very core of what the Constitution protects.

While there are many examples of the current failure to fund mandated programs, there is no more obvious example than the gross failure to fund the cost of state mandated special education. This system, which is scheduled to inflict an annual $700 million dollars of unfunded deficit on local districts, and to spread that deficit unequally, has no justification whatsoever. It must be completely eliminated by any system that you propose, or what you propose will violate the Constitution.
Part II of the Letter will Follow

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