Education groups seek a big fix for Minnesota schoolsby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
A collection of education groups is proposing a significant overhaul of Minnesota's method for funding schools. The coalition called P.S. Minnesota wants to rework the complex formula for distributing state aid to school districts.
St. Paul, Minn. — P.S. Minnesota took it upon itself to analyze the report issued two years ago by a task force appointed by Gov. Pawlenty to consider education funding reform. The result is what P.S. Minnesota is calling a new framework for school funding. Sauk Rapids School Superintendent Greg Vandal, who heads up the coalition, says Minnesota's current education formula is a precarious assembly of add-ons that don't add up to a cohesive whole.
"We believe they're the product of political compromise over the course of time. Everything that's been done has been done for good reason. But only in isolation. We're putting a total package together that's done for good reason and is rationally linked from one element to another and that's a fundamental change from the way we've been doing business," he said.
Vandal presented the proposal to about 200 education professionals and legislators. P.S. Minnesota is made up of a number of education groups including associations for rural and metropolitan school districts. He says the coalition wants to provide a means to improve education funding decisions and reduce reliance on local levy referenda.
"I would hope you walk away with an appreciation for the fact there's a better way to construct a funding formula, that some direction has been provided in the form of a framework, and that this direction can be brought into a policy-making arena and change can emerge as a result."
What the framework is not, Vandal insists, is a mechanism for focusing on funding amounts. But an accompanying report does just that and the numbers raise eyebrows.
The report by consultants hired by P.S. Minnesota estimates the state should invest at least an additional $1 billion a year to adequately fund education. The same report hikes that number to nearly $1.8 billion if the figures take future goals into account. When the state of Maryland adopted similar funding guidelines, it increased education funding by $1.3 billion after six years. After the presentation, Rep. Mindy Grieling, DFL-Roseville, said she was impressed the various school associations reached consensus on the outline. But she worries the plan requires too much of a commitment right away.
"When you change a formula whole cloth like you do here, you really have resistance if anybody comes out to be a loser. So to make a big change usually you pour a lot of money in just to make sure that doesn't happen. So my question is will this unravel if they don't have that much money. Will there be some districts that say 'Wait a minute--we're not for this anymore'".
Greiling is chair of House K-12 Finance Committee. Her Senate counterpart Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, says the P.S. Minnesota plan at least provides a place to begin a discussion on reworking the formula, which he believes is possible this coming session.
"In my 26 years in the legislature, I have not seen this kind of cohesiveness among education groups and that's very positive," he said.
Cohesive or not, the individual needs of school districts is one of the reasons the funding formula is so complicated. Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says the P.S. Minnesota proposal is a welcome idea on ways to simplify school funding. She says it's important for any plan, however, to be linked to student achievement.
"One of my biggest concerns is whatever we do and whatever money is proposed to be spent that it has an accountability attached with it. A return on investment if you will," she said. Seagren's concern is echoed by Jim Bartholemew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership. He says the P.S. Minnesota framework says student success is a goal, but he wants to see a more tangible bridge between money and accountability.
"At this point anyway there's no direct connection between the funding and actual acheivement," he said. "How will that funding and achievement be linked?"
P.S. Minnesota organizers say the details of how much the proposal costs and how it's ultimately rolled out will depend on the legislative process.
- All Things Considered, 12/01/2006, 5:50 p.m.