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EDUCATION: Taking it beyond testing; Minnesota think tank release report on education spending

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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI -- While the Bemidji School District has made significant strides in restoring funding for early childhood education, the state needs to increase its investment in that and other areas, according to a report released Thursday by a Minnesota think tank.

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Minnesota 2020 was in Bemidji on Thursday to unveil the report, which used financial data for a 10-year period to show how districts spent money from 2003-2004 to 2012-2013.

Bemidji was one of five school districts used as a case study in the report, "Valuing the Whole Child: Education Beyond Test Scores."

Michael Diedrich, an education fellow at Minnesota 2020, said school districts faced several funding obstacles the past 10 years that put them behind the funding eight-ball, including decreasing and stagnate state spending, the national recession and increased emphasis on testing categories. Those factors forced hard decisions for school districts, and ultimately taxpayers, as they looked to prioritize funding.

The report studied spending by districts in five areas -- enriching courses (such as arts, business and computer science), student support services, spending for special student groups such as special education, extracurricular activities and early childhood education.

The biggest decrease came in spending for enriching courses, which saw a 10 percent drop in funding statewide to the tune of $88 million, the report said. Other significant cuts were in student support services, such as for support staff like nurses and counselors. However, funding for special education, including English language learners, kept pace with growth and funding for extracurriculars remained flat, the report said. Early childhood education funding was an area that saw increased spending at the local level, the report said.

The Bemidji School District was used as a case study for early childhood education funding.

"(Early childhood education funding) has been getting increased attention from the state as we realize more and more the power of early childhood education to set students on the right path from Day 1," Diedrich said. "In Bemidji, for example, spending on early childhood education jumped up for a couple years, dropped way down for a couple years but has been increasing continuously since 2008 in a trend that's very, very positive. It has ended up well above where it was in 2003-2004. And that's outpacing even the additions to enrollment, which have been very impressive and very good to see here in Bemidji."

Already a large geographic district, the Bemidji School District estimates it will see an increase of 700 students in the next 10 years. So, like many districts faced with funding shortfalls the past decade, the district took its cue from the state and federal levels, which have put an emphasis on core testing areas such as math and English, said James Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, who attended Thursday's news conference. But district officials also focused on early childhood education, too, adding preschools in the community, as well as additional classrooms to better accommodate the influx of new students.

Diedrich said Minnesota 2020 chose Bemidji as a case study because it was a regional center and because they also wanted the report to be about the entire state rather than Twin Cities-focused.

"It is important that we pay attention to what is happening here as well as in the Metro where all the hubbub happens," Diedrich said.

Other case studies were done in the St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, Rochester and Duluth districts. The report was released this week on the heels of statewide testing results. Diedrich said policymakers, school administrators and even parents need to look beyond test results as a measure of students' success.

Ultimately, Diedrich said the report details how the state needs to focus on ensuring funding across the board, not just in core testing areas. Classes in the arts or business or extracurricular programs go a long way toward a student having a positive, learning experience in school. That is also aided by having strong support from staff, the district and the community at large.

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