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Educators Eye Upcoming Legislative Session

December 11, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Legislative sessions have become like a series of "Friday the 13th" movies - suspense followed by terror followed by horror and then repeated until the grisly finale. Year after year of inattention to the financial needs of Minnesota students has led to teacher layoffs, cuts in programs and a shift from state support of schools to local property tax support via levy elections as a main funding source for education. When it comes time for education budget decisions, it's not a question of if the gore will flow on the Capitol steps, it's a question of when.

But hope springs eternal in the movies. Two education groups have announced their platforms for the upcoming session that begins on Feb. 4.

The Minnesota Rural Education Association and the Association of Metropolitan School Districts are the yin and yang of education advocacy groups. MREA represents about 140 rural school districts, while AMSD represents the interests of about 60 metro districts.

Both groups want schools to be more equitably funded. State funding for education has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent since 2003. While it is true that education didn't see any specific cuts in this biennium, it also didn't see any adjustment for inflation. In addition, Gov. Tim Pawlenty shifted 27 percent of state aid from one year to the next, forcing schools to borrow and absorb interest payments or draw down reserves which cost them interest income.

AMSD will support the New Minnesota Miracle, a proposal put forward by Rep. Mindy Greiling that would stabilize education funding. In fact, AMSD proposes giving school boards the ability to levy taxes without a public vote - just as city councils and county boards now have - "until the New Minnesota Miracle and state education funding is stabilized," said Scott Croonquist, AMSD's executive director. "The only way school districts will be able to survive is to have levy authority temporarily until school funding is sorted out."

For its part, MREA is advocating indexing state education funding to inflation to eliminate reliance on operating referendums. "We need this inflationary adjustment so we don't have to fight the same funding battle over and over again," said Lee Warne, MREA's executive director. "We need to work on providing a better education for our children, not on the money."

MREA is also advocating full funding for early childhood programs, mandated special education formulas and court mandated placements.

Both groups want to see a change in the school year requirements. MREA's plank reads "Allow school districts to establish a flexible learning year without restrictions or interference from the Department of Education." Warne said this comes from state testing requirements that judge the performance of schools through tests administered in the spring. Educators reason that classroom time is best spent before the tests and not after, therefore they want to start the school year earlier.

AMSD is on board with two similar proposals. One would repeal the prohibition against starting school prior to Labor Day. Another would replace the number of contact days to an equivalent number of contact hours to allow schools more flexibility in setting their calendars.

Both groups take aim at charter schools.

MREA wants a three-year moratorium on new charter schools in communities where a public school closes or where the district is considering consolidation. "What we're seeing is that whenever there's talk about consolidation, a charter pops up nearby," Warne said. "This inhibits the school district's discussion of ways to best help students. All we're saying is 'let's take a deep breath here'."

AMSD would like to see charters and private schools foot the bill for transportation. When a student enrolls in a charter school, the home district is responsible for transporting the student to the school. The state picks up a share of that cost and the home school district pays the rest. AMSD wants the charters to pick up the district's portion of the cost. The amount of money a district spends on transportation "depends on the size of the district and the number of charter and private schools in it," Croonquist said. "Obviously Minneapolis (Public Schools) is hit the hardest."

The platforms take up separate issues as well. AMSD calls for an independent education research center that would, according to the platform, be charged with analyzing, conducting and disseminating research on emerging education issues. "Quality, non-partisan information about education best practices is desperately needed," Croonquist said. "It's an issue our members feel strongly about."

MREA strongly believes in distance learning and wants the state to erase gaps in telecom capacity. While the state provides some telecom equity aid, MREA wants more. "Some areas of the state can't get internet access at all, much less broadband capacity," Warne said.

As lawmakers eyeball a budget deficit, some educators are closing their eyes and hoping for the best budget they can get. This is the wrong way to approach the problem. Minnesota students deserve a quality education system. It's up to forward thinking, progressive educators to make sure such a system exists.


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