Friday, May 1, 2015

McCleary v State and Determining the Cost of Education

I've been writing about the importance in public education finance to budget based on actual cost.   In my last post, I noted that the legislative hearings on the K-12 budget rarely, if ever, focus on an examination of cost, and I complained that this represents an unconstitutional abdication of responsibility by the the House and Senate.  In that previous post, I argued that the Minnesota Constitution imposes a duty on the legislature to provide for a thorough and efficient system of public education.

How can it be, I argued, that a system of public education is thorough and efficient, when the elected representatives don't even try to determine the reasonable cost of what they have mandated local school boards to do.
In response, former representative Dorholt, St. Cloud, pointed out that he and Representative Newman sponsored a bill that, if adopted, would have created a mechanism for legislators to work with the Governor to do just that:  to consider the evidence of cost when they appropriate.   The Bill, HF 1365 introduced in the 2013, would have focused the legislature's attention on cost, so that they could do their jobs more effectively. Unfortunately, that bill never got a hearing by the legislature, thus emphasizing my assertion that the legislature has avoided consideration of cost. 

That brings me to this,  the third in a series of posts on the  Washington Supreme Court decision,  McCleary v. State, which enforced that State's constitutional requirement to assure appropriate funding for public education.  In  the first post on McCleary, I introduced the Supreme Court's reaffirmation of the concept that State's constitutional Education Clause must be enforced by the judiciary.  In legal terms, we say that claims against the state challenging constitutionally inadequate funding are "justiciable."   The 79-page McCleary decision covers a lot of legal ground.  In the second post,  we began a discussion of just one of the principles propounded by McCleary, that  the basic education funding formulas did not correlate to the real cost of amply providing students with the constitutionally required education.  In my view, this is the central issue in constitutional funding jurisprudence today.

Minnesota's Constitution, Article XIII, section 1 states:
UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.
I believe that if the Minnesota Constitution's requirement to secure a "thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state" means anything at all, that it means that the legislature and governor must fund the true cost of the education that they mandate, and that means to engage in a deliberate effort to determine costs.   How can it be "thorough and efficient" to demand that a product be produced for ten million dollars, providing only five? The "thorough and efficient" requirement, I believe, begins with actually making a credible effort to determine the cost of providing that mandated education within the framework established by Minnesota law.  

Any credible costing system must begin by costing the current system of education, based on the legislative requirements we face today.   For example, the current Minnesota law on special education, and the administration of that law, is costing about $1.4 billion per biennium more than the revenues provided.   Now there are experts somewhere who claim that if the laws were rewritten, and if various legal constraints were lifted, that we could deliver a creditable special education program for less that we do today.     But I believe that the Constitution does not allow the legislature to fund public education at a level that might work if all of those requirements were lifted, but then leave the requirements in place.    That is not a thorough and efficient system of public education.  If the legislature wants to fund special education at a lower price, then the constitution requires, I believe, that it implement reforms that are necessary to make it possible to deliver the lower cost services.  That's the lesson of McCleary v. State and cases like it.

The tragedy is that in Minnesota, the legislature never makes even the most minimal effort to determine what the average teaching cost should be, in order to maintain a highly qualified reliable teaching force.  Neither the legislature nor the governor make an honest effort to total up the cost of textbooks, teachers, transportation, and all the rest, and then fund it.   We use a funding system that merely provides revenue in the amount that the legislature wills, and mandates program that the legislature wills, without connecting actual cost to revenue.    Early in his term in office, Governor Pawlenty recognized the logic of this basic idea...that public school funding should be rationally based on data.    To this end, on June 14, 2003, Governor Pawlenty named a 19-member Task Force to focus on Minnesota's school finance system.  The first recommendation of that Panel, found in its Report "Investing in our Future", was that Minnesota’s 21st century educational funding formula should be a rationally determined, learning-linked, student-oriented and cost-based Instructional Services Allocation.  To begin that effort, the Task Force recommended that an Instructional Services Allocation funding approach should be developed for Minnesota schools building on a professional panel's research-based judgment.   Suggestions that the Task Force Study might result in a $2-billion increase in school funding essentially torpedoed that effort and the governor cancelled the task force's work.

A pioneer press article in 2004 explained:
The governor's task force is recommending a funding formula based on the actual cost of providing a student with an education sufficient to meet state standards. But the proposal stops short of setting that cost. Schools would still get additional funding help for certain challenges, such as poverty and students who are learning to speak English.  Similar panels have had limited results in recent years trying to improve and simplify the state's K-12 funding system.  Former state senator and task force member Duane Benson said legislators typically look only at how such changes would affect their local schools. Benson said he's optimistic lawmakers will look hard at this proposal and adopt most of it.  "When change comes, sometimes it's a little scary. This can be a little bit scary, but I think doing nothing can be more scary," Benson said.
As I explained in the prior post, the State of Washington engaged in a similar effort.  But in Minnesota, the effort to develop cost-based public school funding was derailed even more decisively than in Washington.   As the results began to materialize, the Governor cancelled the task force's work amidst partisan cross accusations.

How should the Governor and legislature go about accomplishing this objective, of funding education based upon valid data and non-partisan logic?   First and foremost, Governor Dayton should restart the costing out process that Governor Pawlenty abandoned.  The Governor had an opportunity to correct Governor Pawlenty's mistake, but instead, he created a task force designed to paper over the problem.  Its mission statement was not to make the true cost of education transparent, but rather to attempt to assure that current funding is distributed as fairly as possible without significantly rocking the boat?   During the next legislative session, the legislature should be setting school funding policy based on the true cost of mandated services.  If it does not, it is time to challenge that abdication of responsibility in court.