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New Ed Money Replaces Only a Portion of Cuts

September 11, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

In a recent Star-Tribune op-ed, Representatives Sondra Erickson and Kelby Woodard begin their commentary with a woefully incomplete and frequently erroneous description of the state’s role in financing K-12 education over the last decade.

Despite their rosy portrayal of multi-billion dollar state funding increases for Minnesota public schools, per pupil state aid to schools has actually declined. Adjusted for inflation using the proper measurement, state education funding, fell by 15 percent from 2003 to 2013, according to non-partisan analysis from the Minnesota Department of Education. In 2013 dollars, state aid to schools in the recently completed fiscal year is over $1.3 billion dollars less than it was ten years ago.

During the 2013 session, the legislature did increase the state school aid entitlement for the FY 2014-15 biennium by $570 million according to non-partisan legislative staff, which averages to $285 million per year. This is sufficient to replace less than one-quarter of the annual $1.3 billion decline from 2003 to 2013.

Is the increase in state funding for K-12 education approved during the 2013 session appreciated? You bet it is. Schools will be able to replace a small but significant piece of the real school funding cut that occurred since 2003, which lead to increasing class sizes and many of the other unfortunate trends Erickson and Woodard decry. In addition, school and other local government taxes on existing properties are projected to decline in 2014 for the first time in over a decade, according to the non-partisan House Research Department. Thank you Governor Dayton and legislative progressives!

In short, Erickson and Woodard attempt to spin a decade of double-digit decline in real per pupil state aid as an increase—and then they wring their hands about the problems confronting K-12 education. Many of these problems are the result of the “no new state tax” policies that Erickson and Woodard have endorsed—policies that caused real school funding to decline at the same time that school property taxes soared.

As for their claims about student achievement, Erickson and Woodard’s primary claim is that “student proficiency in reading has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points” last school year. What they don’t say is that the state raised its definition of proficiency, making it harder to qualify as proficient.

Imagine a line for a roller coaster with a sign saying, “You must be 5 feet tall to ride.” Then imagine a ride attendant comes along and changes the sign to say “6 feet.” Fewer people now qualify to ride the roller coaster. Did everyone else get shorter? Of course not! That, however, is the logic Erickson and Woodard use when they complain about the “drop” in reading proficiency.

It’s good that Erickson and Woodard acknowledge the divide in outcomes between students in different racial and economic groups, and that they acknowledge the hard work put forward by public school teachers. It’s disappointing to see those important facts obscured by false or misleading claims and the usual boilerplate complaints about “bureaucracy.” When it comes to presenting information about K-12 finances and student achievement fairly and accurately, Erickson and Woodard need a refresher course.

Jeff Van Wychen, Minnesota 2020's director of tax policy, contributed the fiscal data to this article.

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