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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Stop Taking Money from School Kids

October 01, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

On my family's refrigerator, I keep a hand-written, weekly dinner menu. Menu planning gives me a small but critically important sanity margin. It also meets my goal of healthy, nutritious and at least modestly attractive food gracing our evening table.

The other night, the fridge menu read, "Meal assembled from items on hand." Most people call this "leftovers;" I prefer "deeply rooted rural cultural frugality."

Over the weekend, I'd roasted a turkey breast and steamed Brussels sprouts. Dicing the turkey, halving the Brussels sprouts and warming the whole thing with a sliced, about-to-go-south tomato and a few leftover roast potatoes would put a hash on the table. Provided, of course, that no one ate the turkey breast before dinner.

See, turkey's the key here. Turkey's welcome presence sells the entire meal. My kids sort-of eat Brussels sprouts. Not enthusiastically, but at least they consume them. A hash, long on Brussels sprouts and short on everything else, wouldn't be well-received. Going one step further, a turkey-less, Brussels sprouts-heavy dinner could very well prompt diner uprising because, really, there's no telling what happens when turkey promised becomes turkey denied.

Earlier last month, the State of Minnesota announced it would be "borrowing" $142 million in order to meet the state's financial obligations. Rather than go to a bank, seek a loan and pay interest for using the money, Minnesota simply withheld $142 million from the 134 of Minnesota's 337 school districts with the largest budget reserves.

There's nothing illegal about this action.  Minnesota has done it before and will certainly do it again. School piggy bank robbing might represent a moral and an ethical failure on the part of Minnesota's state elected leaders but it's entirely legal. And, of course, conservative public policy dictates forbid raising state taxes by even $1, much less $142 million, so responsible state government managers have little choice but to declare a cash-flow emergency and withhold school payments.

School transfer payment appropriation is not born equally. The state's action hits the 134 schools who've done the best job of making hard decisions, living within their means and still maintaining a decently-sized, required fund reserve. My hometown's school district, Westbrook-Walnut Grove,  made the list.

WWG is not a large district. Current enrollment stands at 613. Significantly, more than half of WWG students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch so a 9 percent cut, not quite $255,000, represents an especially pointed insult. Just 29 miles east of Walnut Grove, along Highway 14,  the Springfield school district was tapped for $2.2 million. That represents 75% of their total payment.

Schools are required by state statute to maintain a financial reserve. It's a smart financial management practice that, absent statute, would likely be disregarded. In the last eight years, as state policymakers have reduced K-12 educational investments an inflation-adjusted 14%, school districts trimmed budgets, expanded class size, slashed purchasing and raised revenue through the only means available to them, property tax increases. Despite all of this, fund reserve requirements remained -appropriately- in place only to be plucked now.

Springfield and Westbrook-Walnut Grove schools will find a way to educate their students but it's not going to be the education that any of us want. Minnesota's school children are being systematically disadvantaged by Minnesota's new school funding policy. While we may not see it now, in time, this policy shift will be observed as Minnesota's economic prosperity drifts, lacking the fuel provided by a smart, capable, well-educated workforce.

Educating people is not an investment-neutral proposition. The world changes; schooling must keep pace, delivering both minimal competency and aspirational capacity. The State of Minnesota's late-in-the-game fund grab punishes schools for doing the job that the state has demanded. It turns us against each other and, frankly, it's wrong.

Teaching children with fewer real dollars results in decreasing quality. No one denies leafy greens' nutritional value but, similar to the educational funding crisis, a light-on-the-turkey, heavy-on-Brussels sprouts hash isn't going to move my family's dinner forward. We can fight all we want about educational accountability and testing standards but less money for school kids is only hurting their education, not improving it.

Conservative education policy creates this crisis, seeking to minimize confidence in public schools. This latest $142 million funding raid could be averted with a very modest state revenue increase but conservative orthodoxy forbids it. Such short-sighted public policy isn't just ruining Minnesota's public schools, it's ruining Minnesota. School reserve fund raids are a particularly strong illustration of what's wrong and what we need to change.

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