Parents Lobby for Schools
Minnesota school parents aren't taking state educational funding cuts and shortfalls lying down. They're standing up.
The push to change how Minnesota pays for its public schools isn't solely in the realm of school board policy wonks and accountants. Parents are taking an active role in shaping state education policy for their districts.
These groups are ad hoc organizations consisting of parents who help school districts lobby legislators. They are non-profit and rarely register as lobbyists themselves.
Such a group was founded last winter in St. Cloud. It joined almost a dozen parent groups throughout the state.
The St. Cloud group's goal was simply to inform legislators about the challenges facing St. Cloud schools.
One of the organizers, Carol Hamilton, said their first meeting was in mid-December and attracted about 15 people. Although St. Cloud schools face many challenges, the members decided to focus their efforts on special education funding.
Here's why: Both the federal and state governments mandate how special education students are to be educated. There are specially trained teachers and paraprofessionals to be hired, special equipment to be bought and accommodations to school buildings to be made - none of these efforts are cheap. However, while they enforce these mandates, the federal and state governments don't fully pay for them.
The school district bears the cost difference.
It's a bad situation. Hamilton elaborated: "Let's say the district budgets $4,000 for each student, but to meet government mandates for special education, the district has to pay $4,800 per special ed student. That means the district can spend only $3,200 per student. Those numbers are examples, of course, but you get the picture. Since mandates for special ed students aren't fully funded, the district suffers."
St. Cloud school district administrators and school board members came to the legislature ready to swing for the fences. They had stats, charts and speeches ready to go. They testified and lobbied fervently.
But they, and other school districts around the state, have done this before and weren't successful changing special education funding. One difference this time, they say, was parent involvement.
The St. Cloud group, the Parent Legislative Action Team, traveled to St. Paul five times during the legislative session. They buttonholed lawmakers. They focused on education and finance committee members but also rang up every lawmaker who would listen.
I think lawmakers were impressed with meeting parents themselves and talking face-to-face about the issues that are important to us, rather than just hearing from administrators and lobbyists," Hamilton said.
The result? The Democrat-held House and Senate approved $330 million for special education funding for the next two years, and more money two years after that. The money is still only about half what districts around the state need.
Did St. Cloud's PLAT make a difference? Did they track the legislators they talked to or monitor if votes changed due to their effort? Did they make any difference at all?
No to the first two, yes to the third, Hamilton said. "I do think we made a difference in the Legislature. The school board, superintendent and parents working together made us the most effective group we possibly could be."
She said her group was modeled after the Anoka-Hennepin Parent Involvement Group which has been active since 1992.
Faced with persistent state educational funding shortfalls and unfunded state mandates, parent involvement in public schools is critical to shaping responsible educational policy. Parent groups are extending that involvement, taking their fight to the Capitol's cooridors. Greater parent involvement, as St Cloud's Parent Legislative Action Team demonstrates, makes Minnesota a better place to educate our students.
For more information, go to St. Cloud's site: www.isd742.org/PLAT and Anoka's site: www.anoka.k12.mn.us