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Tuesday Talk: Will Education Funding Stay on Course?

November 12, 2013 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Minnesota’s new commitment to adequately funding education has been well documented—$485 million in new money, including optional all-day kindergarten funding. It’s great, but it’s not enough to build a world class education system after a decade of underfunding. Minnesota 2020 recently released figures showing this year’s education investment made up only one-third of what’s been lost. As we saw last week, 62 districts still had to go to voters asking for operating levies.

Today between 8 and 9:30, Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020 Education Policy Fellow, joins us to discuss what adequate education funding looks like and the changing nature of spending pressures.

Did the legislature give us just a one time-infusion of cash, or will we stay the course on adequate education investments?

What new expenses are on the horizon at your school? 


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  • Dan Conner says:

    November 12, 2013 at 8:36 am

    I think peopleneed tohave faith in our Governor.  There will be more for education, just not all at once.  I think the Governor will gradually catch us up.

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      November 12, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Dan, I think you’re right that having a progressive governor—especially with a progressive legislature—will hopefully mean good things for our ability to dig ourselves out of the hole Pawlenty dug and then start building up. A governor and legislature that can point to specific citizens’ voices and needs have even more reason to do it.

      How have you seen the effects of the school funding changes where you live, and what would you like to see done next for the schools in your community?

      • Dan Conner says:

        November 15, 2013 at 9:49 am

        I’m sorry to respond so late, but I have seen an increase in relative performance of testing at 4th and 8th grade, I believe.  Secondly, I have seemed to notice a slight diversion of public attention away from beating on teachers.  Instead, we seem to be more focused on what we can collectively do to improve Minnesota to an educational leader.  I think for a while the conservative and selfish forces in Minnesota hijacked our government.  They turned people’s attention to hating and being a part of the problem, instead of part of a solution.

        Success in schools is a parent-teacher partnership.  Teachers aren’t responsible for our children, parents are.  Conversely, parents aren’t responsible for educating our children.  It is teachers responsibility to teach and parents responsibility to prepare their children to learn.  Parents should be facilitators in that process.

        I think the extreme conservative time has to pass when people get over their immersion in hate and judgmentalism.  Instead, people need to become part of the solution to our problems.  It takes no intelligence to identify problems and it isn’t a fix.

  • Rachel says:

    November 12, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Good Morning! Michael will be joining us shortly. To start out, tell us…  How have you seen funding changes impact your local school?

  • Michael Diedrich says:

    November 12, 2013 at 8:51 am

    Good morning, all! I’m looking forward to hearing from you about the school funding situation in your communities.

  • Joe Sheeran says:

    November 12, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Michael, in your StarTrek ed series, you say there are a lot of shiny technological tools schools can buy that are generally useless because there are few resources for training teachers to deploy them in the class. In your experience, what are valuable, easy to use tech tools schools should invest in to improve learning?

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      November 12, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Thanks for the question, Joe!

      I think I’d modify your description of my Star Trek Ed series to say that most technology gets sold on its shiny factor, but the benefits to the students come from the substance of the tools. Many pieces of technology really do have the ability to have a major impact on student learning, provided they are used to change the way teaching is done rather than replicate the activities students were already doing.

      For example, iPads can in fact be useful as research, design, and activity tools that do things students weren’t doing before. The problem in many districts is that teachers aren’t given the training, the freedom, and/or (most importantly, in my opinion) the time to rework their curricula and lesson plans to really get the most out of the new technology. Without that training, freedom, and time, many teachers will default to using iPads (or whatever the new tech is) to accomplish basically the same things they were doing before without changing students’ experiences in an appreciable way.

      Instead of putting money into schoolwide tech with the expectation that teachers will squeeze substantial changes to their curriculum in during the extremely limited time they have available, many schools would be better off buying fewer copies of a piece of technology up front, and instead investing in giving their teachers the time and support to be truly innovative with how they’re using that technology. I’d prioritize the teachers who are itching to get their hands on the tech, as they’re the ones who are most likely to produce really effective changes that can be gradually spread to the rest of the school. Ordering the teacher with the well-developed, low-tech curriculum that gets results (and with which they’re happy) to arbitrarily incorporate new technology is less likely to be a recipe for success.

      • Joe says:

        November 12, 2013 at 9:34 am

        thanks for the clarification.

  • Joe says:

    November 12, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Aside from tech, what will be the big cost drivers going into the future of MN ed?

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      November 12, 2013 at 9:52 am

      I can see a few key areas that could be significant cost drivers:
      - Infrastructure: We’ve covered some of the infrastructure issues facing schools (e.g. lack of air conditioning, which is rough given extended school years and a warming planet). Across the state, we have many buildings in need of repair and renovation, and districts experiencing growth will need to build. Some infrastructure investments, especially around energy usage, could be short-term costs with long-term benefits.
      - Expanding services: A big chunk of the money the legislature allocated to ed in the last session was aimed at expanding all-day kindergarten opportunities statewide. Whenever we look to expand what we offer, that comes with costs. Those interested in lengthening the school year or exploring increased summer offerings, for example, should be realistic about the price tags that come with those areas.
      - Early childhood: This could get classed with the category above, but I think it deserves getting pulled out on its own. In the past few years, we’ve seen early childhood reframed from a human services/child care issue to an education issue. This is also one of the areas where reformers of many different stripes have at least some level of agreement, and I would expect we’ll see increased public investment, including direct district provision of early childhood and family education (ECFE) as well as scholarships/vouchers for use in private facilities.
      - Staffing: As districts weathered the Pawlenty years, many had to cut into staffing. This is not just about teachers, but also about nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians/media specialists, custodial staff, etc. There are a lot of different roles required to best serve students, and those cost money. Ensuring that we have enough (appropriately compensated) staff to keep class sizes low and students need met should be a priority.

      • Michael Diedrich says:

        November 12, 2013 at 9:53 am

        This would be a great place, by the way, for other folks to chime in with the particular issues they see in their communities. I’ve laid out some general statewide trends, but each community has its own needs.

  • Joe says:

    November 12, 2013 at 9:57 am

    There are a wide array of opinions about federal involvement with schools, including the re-authorization of NCLB, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Race to the Top, and unfunded mandates. What do you see as the best role for the feds to pay?

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      November 12, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Speaking strictly from a statewide level, I’d like to see the feds do more to cover the mandates around special ed, etc., that they’ve passed down to those states. These are services that schools are required to provide (and which they should provide), but for which the federal government does not adequately compensate them. I wouldn’t expect any significant movement from the feds on this anytime soon, but I’d still call it out as an issue.

      I wouldn’t expect NCLB to get reauthorized any time soon, given the state of politics in Washington. That’s unfortunate, since its deadline for universal student proficiency is 2014, which means most schools in the country will be labeled as “failing” and subject to the punishments built into the law. Failing to change the law leaves the states in the hands of the federal Department of Education’s NCLB waiver process, which is dangerous (and, I think, of questionable legality). If the process was a straight waiver on as much of the law as possible, that would be one thing. Instead, it’s a strings-attached situation. The strings Arne Duncan has attached to it on things like teacher evaluation and use of data are things I think are wrong from a policy standpoint, but the strings that could be attached by a hypothetical Secretary of Education Scott Walker or Secretary Michele Bachmann are terrifying. States could choose to forego federal funding in exchange for release from the law, but the 10% or so of state funding that the feds contribute would be painful for many to replace.

      Race to the Top was a brilliant way for the feds to trigger a wide range of ed policy changes in many states, while only picking up part of the bill in a few states. It’s not a sustainable funding mechanism by any means, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

      Another major role for the feds in education is higher ed, which relies on the feds for rules and money on loans and grants for students. Other writers at MN2020 have dived into this in more detail, but this is one of the critical roles for the feds.

      In general, I’d rather see the federal government stick more closely to funding mandates, supporting higher ed, and getting states out from under NCLB in a permanent way. Another key role they play is in conducting research on education that drives our understanding of best practices, etc.

  • Annette says:

    November 12, 2013 at 10:04 am

    I think teachers have a lot of insight and opinions about the questions of funding and expenses—but from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m., they are all busy in their classrooms—extremely busy!

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      November 12, 2013 at 10:08 am

      I agree, Annette. I’m hoping to check back in later this afternoon when more teachers may have had a chance to weigh in on this.

  • Terri says:

    November 12, 2013 at 10:05 am

    The district from which I recently retired has no ceiling on the number of students in upper elementary and middle school classes, resulting in massive teacher burnout and attrition. The rate of teacher pay increases has also not kept up with inflation, causing further dissatisfaction and flight by teachers to other districts. Is this a state-wide trend that’s likely to continue, or is there hope for the teaching profession to become attractive for new college grads?

    • Michael Diedrich says:

      November 12, 2013 at 10:15 am

      Thank you for the question, Terri!

      Each district of course has its own rules, but many have kept wages flat or allowed only small increases. That’s a combination of the Pawlenty-era cuts and the Great Recession limiting districts’ options.

      Addressing wages and working conditions—including class size and workload, as well as school leadership, time and support for preparation, the physical condition of schools, etc.—is going to need to be part of our thought process on strengthening our teaching corps in the short and long term. In addition to increasing teachers’ pay (which is, after all, a sign of social prestige, and we do want teaching to be a high-prestige profession), we can and should be looking at ways to better bridge new teachers into the profession, retain teachers who have benefited from years of improving their craft, and ensure workloads are sustainable.

    • Annette says:

      November 12, 2013 at 10:55 am

      When my own children were considering what to major in at college, they each said, “We are NOT going into education.  You work too hard, Mom, and get paid too little!” They saw my exhaustion and mounds of work I brought home from my classes of 31, 32, 33 students year after year.  In addition to that, my salary has been frozen for 4 years.  Although there is money being put back into education, I find myself discouraged about ever catching up, about class sizes being held to an average of 24 in the upper elementary (that would mean hiring more teachers!), about attracting the best and brightest to an extremely stressful occupation….I’m happy with our governor and the efforts of our present legislature, but deep damage was done under the previous governor and legislature, and I wonder if we will ever truly recover. Thankfully our district just passed a levy, so 85 teachers’ jobs are safe.  Here’s what we need money for:  more teachers so class sizes are lower, more money for technology (it shouldn’t matter what your zip code is) and training for teachers, more money to put into salaries (because teachers are NOT overpaid!), more money put into Early Childhood, more money and less paperwork for special education, more money that can be used for the Fine Arts in schools, more counselors and social workers and nurses for the increasing needs of so many young students, more money for supplies so teachers are not shelling out 100s—if not 1000s—of dollars each year, more money for parent education and outreach to parents.  By the way, I am not presently teaching in a classroom; after 25 years I took a position coaching teachers, thus have the flexibility to write. I’m slated to return to the classroom in 2 years—a scary thought to me if the conditions aren’t significantly different, as much as I love the children and love (the idea of) teaching.

  • Michael Diedrich says:

    November 12, 2013 at 10:31 am

    All right, folks, I’m off for the morning! I’ll be checking in on comments over the course of the day when I can.