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Education Funding Debate: Is 'Fuzzy Math' Involved?
By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
April 3, 2001
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For the past two months, Gov. Ventura and education groups have waged a war of words over his lean spending proposal for public schools. After increasing education spending by more than $1 billion two years ago, Ventura says it's now time to hold the line. Educators say they need more money to prevent budget cuts and layoffs. Legislators appear willing to spend more, but as they begin crafting their own education budget, there's still an argument over which numbers to believe.

Gov. Ventura's education commissioner, Christine Jax, says the numbers being used in the debate over K-12 education funding provide "selective ammunition" for each side in the biennial budget battle.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
THE TWO MAJOR SOURCES OF MONEY for Minnesota school districts are the state general fund and local property taxes. State officials use a basic "per pupil formula" to distribute most money to schools. But lawmakers have also added other formulas over the years to address specific financial needs. Some school districts get extra funding, for example, to compensate for poverty levels, non-English-speaking students, low property values, long distances buses must travel and so on. Add to that different levels of local property-tax revenue, and you have a complex web of numbers that can tangle even seasoned policymakers.

Gov. Ventura's education commissioner, Christine Jax, says the numbers also provide selective ammunition for each side in the biennial budget battle.

"When you're talking about numbers and statistics, there are ways to pull out the numbers that make your point. And if you're talking about the union, they have one point to make. If you're talking about the administration, they have another. The different political parties might have their own points. So, I think that that's why the numbers look distorted and it gets confusing for the public," Jax says.

So, when Gov. Ventura says education spending has increased 100 percent in the past 10 years, he's right. Department of Children Families and Learning statistics show state K-12 education aid from the general fund grew from $2.1 billion in 1991 to a current level of $4.2 billion.

When officials from the teachers' union, Education Minnesota, counter the total revenue-per-student going to school districts grew by just 39 percent over the decade, state figures can show they're right too. They just didn't account for the 13.5 percent growth in students over that period, or that the state now picks up a bigger share of local tax levies.

Union Co-President Judy Schaubach says the state's bigger share has not translated into more money for schools.

"If you have $1, and 60 cents of that dollar comes from the state and 40 percent comes from the local district, the school district has $1. If the next year 70 cents of that comes from the state and 30 cents comes from the local school, the school district still just has $1," Schaubach says.

Two years ago, Gov. Ventura said it was time to catch up from previous years of underfunding education. The Legislature agreed, and added more than $1 billion to the K-12 budget. This year, Ventura's budget plan adds $123 million for new education programs but no new money to the per-pupil funding formula in the first year of the biennium. It adds about $65 million to the formula the second year.

Ventura, who's recently referred to education spending as "a dark hole," says it's now time to see what the state got for its money two years ago. He says his biggest concern is salary negotiations with teachers.

"It's disturbing when school districts end up with contracts that provide more money than they have in their budgets. In other words, if they know they're going to have 9.5 percent of new money, then they settle a contract that pays 11.5 percent. Common sense says you don't count your chickens before the eggs are hatched," Ventura says.

"We will see approximately 3,000 teachers getting pink slips this spring, and that will mean increasing class sizes and cutting programs."

- Judy Schaubach
Education Minnesota Co-President
Despite the governor's criticisms, a report from the legislative auditor last year on school district finances concluded that average teacher salary growth has not been a major cause of statewide spending growth. It noted during the 1990s, the rate of retirements and the hiring of younger, lower paid teachers actually resulted in a decrease in the statewide average teacher salary. The report instead blamed the rising costs of special education, transportation expenses, disparities in state funding formulas and the declining enrollments in some districts for the spending growth.

Union leaders fear school districts will freeze salaries or offer minuscule raises during the next round of contract talks. School administrators are also concerned about the potential budget cuts ahead and are already outlining worst-case scenarios.

The warning from Education Minnesota's Judy Schaubach is typical. "Given the projections that school districts are looking at, with the governor's budget, we will see approximately 3,000 teachers getting pink slips this spring. And that will mean increasing class sizes and cutting programs."

The message appears to be getting through to key lawmakers. DFL Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, chair of the Senate K-12 Finance Committee, agrees the state needs to provide more money for education, especially in a year when energy costs have skyrocketed. He says the governor's "dark hole" characterization does not recognize the growing pressures placed on the public school system.

"K-12 education has assumed many more responsibilities over the last number of years including health care, child care - a whole host of services that they never provided before. Now we add that all up and that's all very, very costly," Stumpf says.

Stumpf says Ventura's proposal might be one of the leanest K-12 spending plans ever offered in recent history. Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says it's also the most drastic changes in proposed spending from one biennium to the next.

Seagren says she wants to see more consistent funding for public school so administrators can do better planning.

"It may not be a lot of money every year, but I would prefer we have a stable source than this up and down where you have $1 billion one year, and as the governor is proposing zero and 1.5 percent. So, that's where I think we need to get to," Seagren says.

Department of Children, Families and Learning

Legislative Auditor's Report

U.S. Dept. of Education
Seagren says the the Legislature will propose more education spending than the governor. But she says a smaller than expected economic forecast has tempered the House's overall spending plans.

Ventura is not the first governor to pull back his enthusiasm for public education. Governors Carlson and Perpich made similar transformations from friend to foe of the teachers' union.

Rep. Seagren calls it a natural evolution for governors. "What happens is you maybe don't have quite an understanding of how much of a need there is in education, and how you have to carefully pick and choose the issues of the day that are important to spend, but yet you also have to balance that with looking at what kind of tails you create in the future."

Ventura says he's trying to fix the system and wants the Legislature to do the same. His budget also calls for shifting the cost away from local property taxes. As the budget wrangling intensifies, Ventura says he's willing to listen to legislative alternatives.

"If they choose to spend more on education, that's their prerogative, but then I want them to say 'where are you taking it from?'" says Ventura.

House and Senate Education Committees will be setting their spending targets in the coming weeks. A conference committee will ultimately decide the level of spending in the omnibus education bill in the closing days of the legislative session.