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By State Rep. Sondra Erickson
During a school year, it’s not unusual to find an employee at the Capitol selling candy bars on behalf of their kids as part of school fundraiser. I’m sure many of you have been confronted by similar appeals from co-workers who were selling candy, magazine subscriptions and other items for their kids’ schools. Many of these parents were also advocates at the Capitol this year, lobbying for increased K-12 funding.
I’m pleased to report that their lobbying efforts have paid off. The legislature provided K-12 education a substantial boost in funding for the 2006-07 period. Overall, there is $800 million in new spending in the K-12 Education bill. The bulk of the new money will go the basic per pupil formula which will rise 4 percent in each of the next two years. Every school district will benefit as a result. The K-12 bill also provides school districts with $139 million in new levy authority.
The bill also increases Early Childhood Family Education programs by $5.5 million, adds $4 million more for Headstart, and spends $7.5 million on internet/telecommunications access grants. Funding is also set aside for “Get Ready, Get Credit,” a program to help students prepare for college, and $11 million is spent to create a Talented and Gifted program that encourages academic excellence.
Perhaps most notable, the legislation also sets aside $79 million for school districts willing to embrace Gov. Pawlenty’s “QComp” reform initiative that rewards teachers for performance. As the Governor has said, “… our system of education needs to embrace higher standards, innovation and accountability. In a time of jaw-dropping change, we need to transform our expectations and our methods of educating our children.”
Perhaps it’s also time to transform our methods of funding K-12 education. Our schools will continue to have spending pressures, but it has less to do with the amount of money we pour in (a staggering $12.8 billion this biennium) but more with the way we allocate it. Generally, state lawmakers have tied school funding to demographics – the more children enrolled, the more “pupil units” -- the more money a school district receives. But with greater student mobility, schools are hard-pressed to predict how many students and how much funding they will receive year to year. For bad or good, demographics has become our destiny when it comes to funding K-12 education in Minnesota.
As vice-chair of the Minnesota House K-12 Education Finance Committee, I’ve listened to many concerns about how schools are being shortchanged. No wonder. Nearly 80 percent of the 340 school districts in Minnesota have experienced recent enrollment declines, and with it, less state revenue. At the same, communities that support education with more property tax dollars are undergoing demographic changes as well. Many new residents -- our new families -- are having fewer kids.
What it points to, I believe, is that our demographic model of funding schools is grossly inadequate and out of date. I’m looking forward to looking exploring alternative ways of funding education. It’s time we thought outside the box. For example, why not adopt a small business model to fund schools? Have officials at the Department of Education visit each school district and essentially ask the superintendent and board, “What’s it going to take to run this place?” What’s it going to cost to provide salaries, implement a curriculum, be accountable and pay the heating bill?
No two school districts are quite alike. Each school district faces its own unique set of circumstances. There are common core values and expenses all schools share, but some schools may choose to offer programs and services unique to their community. Perhaps these kids will still want to sell candy bars to bolster their school programs. Would these options be better funded and supported locally? It will be a political up-hill battle to fundamentally change the way we pay for education. But as we have seen with QComp, we can plant seeds of reform that result in greater accountability and academic improvement. I believe a majority of Minnesotans would agree that the current enrollment-based model is broken. Let’s begin looking at alternatives.
Rep. Erickson is the state representative for House District 16A which includes all of Mille Lacs County and parts of Morrison, Benton and Sherburne Counties.
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