Friday, May 6, 2011

Commissioner’s Education Funding Working Group strikes out on special education funding.

From time to time, a task force is convened to fix Minnesota's broken school finance system.   Every time that happens, the task force or commission runs up against a major problem:  the growing special education deficit.   Every time, the task force must decide whether to solve that problem, or to continue the current system, which shifts most of the burden onto a selected subset of school districts, primarily urban center districts, the Twin Cities, Duluth, and regional hubs like St. Cloud.   The basic problem has always been that whatever formula used, it works out that districts with high special education populations lose out and carry huge deficits. 

St. Cloud's current deficit is approaching $9 million.  Anoka's is rising beyond $28 million.  Minnesota's projected special education deficit is projected to be 700 million per year by 2013.  (See chart at the bottom of this blog post) The Education Finance Working Group has not adopted a final solution, but the news is not looking very promising for an honest,  courageous, and fair solution in special education.  It appears, based on postings at the MDE that the Commissioner's Education Funding Working Group has decided to put a few bandaids on the problem, and call it even.  

This blog may be unjust, and its author unfair.  I certainly hope so.  But it appears that the price tag is  too big to advance a straightforward solution.   And so, we are beginning to see, regrettably, once again, a bandaid solution that ignores the most significant and financially stifling problem facing education finance in Minnesota.   

There is one and only one possible solution to this problem, and that is to provide $700 million in additional revenues to local school districts, or to provide them with discretionary revenues to fund the part of the deficit which the State refuses to cover out of state sources.   True, the magnitude of this special education deficit problem could be cushioned by reducing state mandated spending.   For example, the State could eliminate spending mandates in excess of the Federal IDEA requirements.  But neither Republicans nor Democrats, nor the MDE Commissioner, nor anyone on the task force, apparently, is willing to advance this idea.   That means, evidently, that the Funding Working Group is apparently beginning with the assumption that special education costs will continue to rise unabated in Minnesota and that certain districts will continue to eat those costs.

As long as the task force insists in holding the cost side of special education harmless, there is only one honest, constitutional solution to this underfunding problem, and that is to close the funding gap with additional revenues.  Why will the task force not advance this simple straightforward solution?  The answer is that the education community in Minnesota has continued to enable the MDE, the legislature and the governor, in sweeping the special education funding problem under the rug, as if it was someone else's problem.  

Time after time, this issue has been addressed with half measures and evasions.  Time after time, the solution in Minnesota has to been to blame the federal government, and pass the deficit on to a subclass of local districts.    It is as if the representatives of the education in Minnesota has agreed to the proposition that the Emperor has new clothes.  They say, "we have a 700 million dollar annual special education deficit in Minnesota:.  If we solved that problem in a straightforward way, it would cost too much money, so lets not bother trying."  

And so, the Working Group appears headed once again to place bandaids on special education funding..   Various funding formula devices seem to be under discussion, none of which even remotely equalize the burden.   Some form of minor cost shifting in favor of "receiving" districts is under consideration, it appears.  The result would be modest adjustments still leaving great gaping holes in special education funding to be carried by the unfortunate districts who are designated to carry the load for the entire state.   

Again, I would be happy to be proven wrong.  If my interpretation proves unjust, I'll be the first to extend my apologies.  But it appears that the Working Group is going to continue the Minnesota practice of balancing the education budget on the backs of a few districts once again while calling the result a "Miracle."  

At the same time, it appears, the funding working group is toying with the idea of actually limiting the role of local taxation in solving the shortfall for the disfavored districts.   Most school districts that are carrying humongous state mandated special education deficits survive by passing operating referendums. Yet, it appears that the Working Group is operating under the mistaken belief that constitutional equality means denying revenue to districts with higher state mandated special education deficits.   The Working Group seems still to be operating under the philosophy that was actually rejected in the Skeen decision, to wit, that the constitution requires equality of funding sources.  In fact, the Constitution requires exactly the opposite.  The Constitution demands that when the state shifts greater costs onto a local district, that the State must provide a revenue source, state or local, to cover that deficit. 

Having denied local school districts state revenues to close their state mandated special education funding, logic would suggest that then the Working Group would provide local districts with local revenues to equalize the burden.  But instead, the working group appears to be going in the opposite direction.   The motto of the Working Group appears to be the same as other task forces in the past:   Equalize everything except for special education.   Make everything fair, except for special education, which is, well just too hard to solve to make things fair.  

Listen.   Any solution that fails to equalize the special education burden in Minnesota is doomed to failure.  It is not constitutional.  It is not just.  It is nothing more than a way for the districts with lower special education responsibilities to gang up on the subgroup of school districts who have high and costly responsibilities.   And, such a solution fails cannot withstand constitutional strict scrutiny and is destined to be struck down.  

Other posts on Special education finance:

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