Saturday, March 28, 2015

Minnesota E-12 Budget in Trouble--Part I

I'm beginning a series of posts on the K-12 Budget for the coming biennium, because I believe that Public Education is facing an impending crisis, but that the education community has not yet woken up to that fact.   Last year, the Governor and DFL controlled legislature provided desperately needed relief to K-12 education, after years of really tough times. Partly, those difficulties resulted from the great recession which began in 2007.  But it also resulted from (a) tough budgets during years of divided or Republican budgets which failed to address major education funding (b) a pro-labor bargaining structure which forced school districts to provide compensation increases above the funding increases provided by the legislature, (c) a legislative appropriation system that completely ignores cost, and instead focuses almost entirely on political arbitrage amongst power blocs at the legislature, and (d) a bankrupt special education structure that intentionally underfunds special education and "cross subsidizes" the deficit by transferring money out of regular education.  

Let's being by stealing some information from the Senate's introduction to Minnesota budget basics:  This year, the Republicans are focused on cleaning out the surplus, a strategy that has in the past reaped short term political gains for the party, and Democrats are focused on creating excitement by diverting most of any K-12 increases into early childhood education.   Under cover of providing huge increases to early childhood education, the Democrats evidently feel that they can skate by unnoticed if they hold down K-12 increases to levels typically seen only in years of fiscal crisis.   And so, I've resolved to write a bit about education finance in Minnesota, and begin today with the start of a series of primers on K-12 budgeting.

A biennial budget is a two-year spending plan[1]. The focus of the biennial budget for the State of Minnesota is to determine desired levels of appropriations to state agencies. On the fourth Tuesday in January in odd-numbered years, the Governor issues what he or she believes should be the budget for the following biennium[2].  The most important fund is the General Fund, both because it is the largest fund and because its use is more flexible than other funds.  A biennium is a two-year period. In Minnesota, an operating budget is made for a fiscal biennium, which is made up of two fiscal years . Fiscal bienniums for the State of Minnesota begin on July 1 of odd-numbered years and end on June 30 of odd-numbered years. Fiscal bienniums are referred to by their fiscal year names. For example, July 1, 2003, is the beginning of the 2004-2005 biennium.

The budget base is the common starting point in the construction of the next biennial budget. Minnesota statute mandates base budgets be set from current appropriation levels.  Minn. Stat. sec. 16A.11 subd. 3[3].  In the second post, we'll take a look at the proposals by House, Senate and Governor and discuss what they each mean potentially for K-12 education.

[3] Tables listing expenditures for the next biennium must show the appropriation base for each year. The appropriation base is the amount appropriated for the second year of the current biennium. The tables must separately show any adjustments to the base required by current law or policies of the commissioner of management and budget. For forecasted programs, the tables must also show the amount of the forecast adjustments, based on the most recent forecast prepared by the commissioner of management and budget under section 16A.103. For all programs, the tables must show the amount of appropriation changes recommended by the governor, after adjustments to the base and forecast adjustments, and the total recommendation of the governor for that year. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Somali Students Walk Out: What should we do

This year, on the anniversary of Freedom Summer and Selma, I've been speaking to young people about the power of youth to make things better. I've been reminding them of the young people who stood up to make their communities better hoping to engage adults to make their community more welcoming. Sometimes, those of us who fought those battles fifty years ago, pushed the limits. But we forced change.    Walking out of school is perhaps technically a violation of school rules, so how should we respond. 

First, I think its very important that we recognize that Somali students are raising a concern that school districts hear from other students., white, African American and Asian.    We can ask, well, why should Somali students get this attention, but I think the answer is that all of our students deserve the same school environment.   I don't hear Somali students asking for anything different from what our white students and parents expect.  Our Somali students and our white students  want us to make sure that our schools are welcoming, safe and academically successful. 

 That's right:  All of our students and parents want the same thing. We adults can listen or we can get defensive and try to figure out how to avoid listening. Improving our schools is not a Somali issue, or a black issue or a white issue: it is an issue that impacts all of our young people. Students want to be treated fairly; to be challenged with high expectations; to go to classrooms where disciplinary expectations and academic expectations are equally high for all students.

When parents write me, they sometimes raise a concern that possibly a different group of students is getting special treatment.   Yet, nobody asks that their children get treated better than anyone else.   All of them are really united around the same objective:  they want to be respected equally; they want their classrooms to be quiet when quiet is called for; they want to learn in an atmosphere free of bullying. Whether Somali, African American, white, Asian or native, they are asking for a school that we can go to without fear, that prepares us, all of us, for a great future.

When young people ask us to make things better, let's use that as an opportunity to make things better for all of our students.  If Somali students feel that they are being bullied, its more than likely that white students feel that they are being bullied as well.  That's no excuse for failing to respond proactively.    We can meet the request of Somali students and white students at the same time.   Making a school safer and more welcoming for white students doesn't require making it less safe for Somali students, and making schools safer and more welcoming for Somali students doesn't require making it less for White students.   A welcoming environment is infectious:  when all students are welcomed; when bullying is suppressed; when high standards of discipline  are enforced as to all students equally, all students benefit.  So let's not make it a divisive issue. 

If white parents are concerned about Somali parents getting attention on this, my advice is, join together and ask for the same thing with one voice.   Instead of "why are they getting support to make the school more welcoming,"  how about trying this: "I'm so glad they are raising this issue, I want that for my kids too." 

As far as the walkout goes, we'd like to think that students could walk-in to the principal's office, instead of walking out.  And hopefully, next time there is a problem, that is what will happen.  On the other hand, we ought to be glad that they spoke out in some way. Its time for adults to say, boy that's a whole lot better than young people doing drugs, defacing their desks with graffiti, or skipping school to go to the shopping center. Asking for change is a part of a proud American tradition