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Report: School funding could be fairer
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the report will form the base of a recommendation to the Legislature next year and possibly lead to a pilot project where a handful of school districts try a new funding formula. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
A long-awaited report on the state's school funding system says reform should start with figuring out what it actually costs to educate a child. It's not the type of radical reform some critics of the current complex system hoped for when Gov. Pawlenty assembled the funding task force. But the report's authors hope it at least provides a starting point for what is likely to remain a heated political debate.

St. Paul, Minn. — A year ago, Gov. Pawlenty asked 19 Minnesotans to tackle what is arguably the most arcane area of the state budget: K-12 education funding. Nearly 42 percent of the state budget is spent on Minnesota schools, yet the governor joked that fewer than 10 people in the state really understand how the money is spent.

The governor's task force recommends that the state create a funding formula based on the actual cost of educating a child. The group didn't come up with that number. Under the current system, the state gives schools a basic funding amount of about $4,600 per student, and adds money for other factors such as low-income students and non-English speaking students. Pawlenty says the system isn't based on cost.

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"What we do around here is we say, how much money might be available next year, or not, and how much of that can we afford to give to K-12 education. There's no real discussion about what it costs to educate a child," he said.

Pawlenty says he will likely propose a pilot project that will ask a handful of school districts to try a new formula.

Task force chair Ric Dressen, the superintendent in Alexandria, says a participating district would get a block grant, and more flexibility than the current system provides for schools to spend it.

"Their site council, which would involve educators, principal, it would involve parents, would help determine what the staffing plan should look like, what the programming should look like, it'll give them a chance to really design their own programming, and the key is they're going to be held accountable for the performance of each student," he said.

Two task force members signed a minority report criticizing the group's recommendations. Former Duluth superintendent Mark Myles and State Board of Teaching member Dee Thomas say the task force gave little consideration to innovation, reform and accountability based on student results. They say sending money to districts in block grants with fewer strings attached won't increase accountability.

Others say the group's recommendations aren't that much different from the current system.

"The report ends up just being warmed-over hash," according to Steve Kelley, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. He did not serve on the governor's task force. Kelley, a DFLer from Hopkins, says the recommendations do nothing to address the biggest education funding issue.

"The fundamental problem is that Minnesota schools don't have the state resources to meet the needs that they talk about of educating all kids, and so the governor is substituting talking about reform for providing the necessary resources," Kelley said.

Kelley says because Gov. Pawlenty isn't willing to raise state taxes, local districts have been forced to raise property taxes to pay for schools. Pawlenty says he wants to put more money into education as the state's economy improves. But that may not happen in time for his next budget.

The last state revenue forecast projected a $400 million deficit for the next two year budget, a number that swells to one-billion dollars if inflation is taken into account. The chair of the House Education Finance Committee, Republican Alice Seagren of Bloomington , says the next state budget will be tough.

"I'm expecting that 2005 will probably see a small amount of funding for education. So whatever we do with that amount of educational funding, we need to make sure it works well for our schools. We just can't put a little money on the formula and say, 'OK, now go and continue to do what you are still doing,'" Seagren said.

Seagren says she would have liked to have seen more reform in the report, but calls it a good first step.

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