Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Education Balancing Act

Education spending in Minnesota is caught in a quagmire. Many tough decisions will have to be made before session takes a hiatus for the summer and one of the toughest balances to find for legislators will be supporting current infrastructure spending and/or the rollout of new programs.

The Governor’s spending plan for education lays out a variety of different areas for investment infusion: school breakfast, U of MN Medical School, teacher workforce development, per pupil formula rate adjustment, support for American Indian students, and universal pre-k to name a few. Legislators have taken action on some of these proposed topics-there have been about 50 K-12 education bills proposed in the House this session and almost 200 in the Senate.

Metro area school districts are facing hard times and although the state appears to have money to spare, many schools are making cuts. Districts are dealing with teacher layoffs, increasing class sizes, spending their reserves, and going to their constituency for local levy increases because the funding allotments from the state don’t look high enough to sustain even current expenditure levels for the next school year.

A recent Minnpost article identifies 3 main problems contributing to the fiscal maladies plaguing schools: lack of inflation adjusted state aid, budgets not reflecting true cost of service provision, and allocation for new universal pre-k programming. Universal preschool has been introduced many times previously in the Minnesota legislature and is the source of much disagreement. Several other states have adopted similar programs or are on the verge of implementation. The general fund is money that can be spent in any way the school or district chooses, but is not annually adjusted to reflect inflation. Legislative budgets can be complex, difficult to ascertain pertinent information, and potentially misleading. Minnesota operates on a biennium planning cycle, and all day kindergarten, for example, rolled out during the back half of a biennium. The cost per the budget for this fiscal year portray all day kindergarten programming as half of what it will cost in total for the next biennium. Some do not necessarily take issue with universal pre-k on its own premises, but rather that it will defer money schools need now to prevent cuts to current operations. It is the opinion of some that adding dozens of classrooms for early childhood programming is illogical if that means increasing K-12 class sizes to 35 students or more.

The tough decisions about education programming facing Minnesota legislators are common in many other fields of public service too. This nation was founded on the ideal of striving for a more perfect union and every level of government has endeavored to provide that for its constituency. Every decision comes at the cost of sacrificing other competing interests and two primary competitors in Minnesota education discourse are sustaining current district operations or installation of universal pre-k.

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