Thursday, May 6, 2010

Race to the Top: Minneapolis' disadvantage

The State of Minnesota’s massive budget shortfall is a well-known fact, and the effort to bridge the $4.6 billion gap is a perennial news headline. It is clear that solving the shortfall will require creativity, patience, and thoughtful prioritization. It is not yet clear what the shortfall will mean in the coming years for K12 education in Minnesota, which today accounts for nearly 40% of total state spending, the largest single expenditure in the state. The state appropriation for K12 education spending (General Education Aid) was reduced by $500 million for the 2010 – 2011 biennium. That reduction was offset by a one-time infusion of federal fiscal stabilization funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). However, the ARRA funds are obligated only through September 2011, and the Minnesota Department of Education reports that school district property tax levies will remain essentially flat during the current biennium.

Minnesota’s constitution requires 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. “ The state’s effort to secure this system of K12 education has been marred by reports that Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation (the disparity in scores between black and white students on standardized reading and math tests), and more recently, by a failure to obtain a $330 million “Race to the Top” federal grant for K12 education improvements.

Minneapolis Public Schools face one of most difficult challenges in the state. The district comprises 91 schools, serves 34,570 students who speak 90 different languages, has a total expense budget of more than $446 million—and is facing a $20 million budget shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year. Enrollment has steadily declined each year, a total of 23% since 1999; during the same time period, changing demographics and a grim economic outlook have placed additional pressures on the district. They are, truly, being asked to do more with less.

But what is "more", and how much does it really cost?

We know that the state requires Minneapolis Public Schools to provide an adequate education to every student. A report by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association defined an adequate K12 education using satisfactory results on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment Test and the Minnesota Basic Skills Test, along with the state graduation rate. The report found that the cost of an adequate education in the state of Minnesota averages $6,236 per student, but that there was a large variation among school districts, ranging from $14,446 in Minneapolis to $5,524 in districts with a more advantageous environment. These findings bring to light issues surrounding adequacy (defining it), equity (how to achieve it and who is responsible), and efficiency (why some school districts are able to achieve more with less).

The district acknowledges that they have balanced the budget for the current fiscal year, but that it relies on one-time funds which will not help resolve their projected $20 million shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year. Balanced budget or not, Minneapolis Public Schools need assistance from the state of Minnesota in order to provide adequate, efficient, and equitable education to its students.

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