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Legislators will tackle standards and school funding
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Budget cuts and teacher layoffs have increased class sizes at many Minnesota schools. Forty students squeezed into the advanced German class earlier this year at Spring Lake Park High School. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Legislators' promises to protect K-12 education in the 2003 session have not been enough to ease the budget fears in Minnesota school districts. With the state facing a $4.5 billion deficit, education leaders are bracing for another year of program cuts and layoffs. They're also expecting an end to the state's controversial graduation standards, known as the Profile of Learning.

St. Paul, Minn. — The mood was gloomy at a recent gathering of the Minnesota School Boards Association. School districts throughout the state had to increase fees, trim programs and lay off teachers this year to balance budgets. Bloomington school board member Christine Scanlon says she expects the state budget deficit means more financial pain ahead.

"We have made approximately $1 million in cuts the past year," Scanlon said. "We're looking at additional cuts this year. I don't think there's anything that's not on the table. Fees have gone up, but they will go up more. Programming will be cut. Class size certainly increases."

School districts are preparing to tighten their belts again based on the assumption that state funding will, at best, stay at current levels. They're also expecting the cost of transportation, health care and salaries will increase. Any reductions in state money would make matters that much worse. Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty is trying to provide some hope to school boards. He says K-12 education funding will be a top priority in his budget.

"What we've said is we will try our very best, we will make every possible effort to not harm K-12 education, to hold it harmless, not cut it," Pawlenty said. "Ideally we'd even be able to find some money for a slight increase, but we're not promising that because we haven't gone through the numbers yet."

Those education numbers now represent nearly 40 percent of the state's spending obligations. The 2001 Legislature shifted the basic cost of K-12 schools, about $1 billion, from local property taxes to the state budget. Pawlenty says he'll solve the state's $4.5 billion deficit and protect K-12 education with no tax increases. His finance commissioner designate, Dan McElroy, recently clarified the administration will try to protect classroom expenses, not the entire K-12 budget. Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says he thinks Pawlenty is changing his position.

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Image Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators

"He's recognizing that he may not be able to deliver enough money to keep all of the segments of public education funded," Kyte said. "It also is an indication that he's recognizing that the shortfall is so large that he simply cannot solve it with just cutbacks."

Kyte says school districts will need additional sources of revenue if the state cannot fulfill its funding obligations. He supports allowing school districts to raise tax levies without a voter referendum, as cities and counties do. More than 300 school districts held levy referendums in 2001 and 2002. Nearly 60 percent passed, but Kyte says they still need more options.

"They need to give the school districts some avenue to get that money through some type of discretionary local levy," Kyte said. "We can't keep doing it through going for a vote every year or every six months."

Kyte says the Legislature could also help school districts by modifying the Public Employees Labor Relations Act to allow for, among other things, a temporary wage freeze. The statewide teachers union would fight hard to protect their bargaining rights. Education Minnesota President Judy Schaubach says salary decisions must be made on a district-by-district basis.

"This is a real local issue," Schaubach said. "And in some cases we have school districts that actually have very healthy fund balances and in other places we don't. We have places that have passed referendums and places that haven't. So, I think this is something that should be locally determined through the bargaining process." Education Minnesota says an inflationary increase in K-12 funding is needed to help school districts prevent further cuts. Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says an inflationary boost would be a miracle. She says school districts will have to look for ways to lower operating costs.

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Image Rep. Alice Seagren says an inflationary increase would be a miracle.

"There probably hasn't been that kind of forced hard look at things that we've been keeping that maybe we should get rid of," Seagren said. "And maybe it is going to make all of us focus a little bit harder on doing the essential core things that we need to do."

Seagren says efforts to balance the budget and preserve current K-12 funding levels will likely overshadow most education policy discussions in the 2003 session. One unavoidable debate will focus on the state graduation standards, known as the Profile of Learning. Gov.-elect Pawlenty has promised to do away with the show-what-you-know system.

"We do want to be able to repeal the Profile of Learning and replace it with something better, more rigorous, more focused," Pawlenty said. "You know whether there's any remnants of what is now the Profile of Learning and graduation standards remains yet to be seen. But we want it to be a significant overhaul, so it's not just tweaking what we currently have."

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Image Start from scratch?

State officials launched the Profile of Learning in 1998. It requires students to demonstrate what they've learned through various projects or performances. Critics say the standards lack academic rigor and are too difficult to understand. Randy Wanke of the Minnesota Education League says the entire system should be scrapped.

"We feel that the only way to do this correctly is to start from scratch," Wanke said. "There have been attempts to fix, reform, change the Profile of Learning. We feel that all of those have fallen flat, and the only thing that's really left to do is to start over."

But starting over puts Minnesota at risk of losing $200 million in federal education funding. President Bush's so-called "No Child Left Behind" law requires each state to begin annual testing of students in third through eighth grade by 2005. States must also have academic standards that match those tests. The Profile of Learning and existing third and fifth grade tests already fit the bill. Sen. Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins), chair of the Senate education policy committee, says parts of the profile must be retained.

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Image Kelley says a repeal of the Profile of Learning could put federal funds at risk.

"I don' think we can do a full blown repeal of the Profile of Learning and be in compliance with the No Child Left Behind law," Kelley said. "We have too short of a time line for putting into place standards related to reading and writing at multiple grade levels."

The state's outgoing education chief says a repeal also wastes the tens of millions of dollars already spent to develop and implement the graduation standards. Christine Jax, commissioner of the Department of Children, Families and Learning, tried unsuccessfully to improve the standards. She says Pawlenty would just be re-inventing the wheel if he sticks with his plan.

"What he needs to do is get rid of the profile, if he has to make that campaign promise, but he'll replace it with something that resembles the profile with some improvements," Jax said. "And his trick is going to have to be to make sure that in the meantime he doesn't lose the confidence of educators and parents when they see that here's one more reform, one more governor coming in trying to say that they are the education governor and wreaking havoc on the system in the meantime."

Despite the federal funding questions, profile critics say they plan to introduce repeal bills in the opening weeks of the 2003 session.

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