Commentary: School supers say system is broken

Most rural Minnesota school superintendents say the way schools are funded is a disaster and is ruining the quality of education. "There is a crisis in public education and it is significant," one superintendent wrote. "Minnesota has decided to a...

Most rural Minnesota school superintendents say the way schools are funded is a disaster and is ruining the quality of education.

"There is a crisis in public education and it is significant," one superintendent wrote. "Minnesota has decided to abandon its support for public education."

In December, Minnesota 2020 asked all state superintendents about school funding; 177 responded, 84 percent of them from rural Minnesota.

The findings from rural Minnesota were particularly bleak:

-- 83 percent of rural school districts said state under-funding has forced them to ask voters to raise their property taxes just to keep schools open. This drives home the point: Schools cannot stay afloat using only state money.


-- 96.6 percent of rural districts agreed with this statement: The way schools are funded is bad for education.

-- 89 percent agreed that if things don't change, education will get worse. Less than 1 percent said education will get better if funding remains the same.

-- Of rural districts without a levy, 31 percent said they can't hold out much longer and will run a levy election within three years. More than 59 percent said they have no levy because the community won't support one. Again, schools cannot survive on state money alone.

-- An amazing 18 percent of rural district budgets come from voter-approved property tax levies, which means losing a levy election is a disaster. Rural districts that lost an election in 2007 will cut an average of six teachers. Under funding will force more than 60 percent to go back to voters again next year, 89 percent within three years. Only 44 percent say they are on solid financial ground. Schools cannot function with current state funding.

Most superintendents stay quiet about state funding and property tax levy elections to avoid controversy with their school boards and within their communities. Therefore, this study guaranteed the superintendents anonymity in exchange for their honest opinions.

"Our rural district does a very good job educating at-risk students who do not succeed in larger districts," wrote one superintendent. "If the funding system doesn't change, this district is doomed and that is very unfortunate." Indeed, the average school district surveyed says they will lay off at least four teachers this year.

In 2001, Minnesota lawmakers adopted a plan in which the state would pay almost all K-12 education costs. Sadly, the state hasn't kept its promise. Under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, school investment has dropped an inflation-adjusted 4.4 percent statewide, forcing school districts to rely on local property taxes to pay for basic needs. In 2001, the average per-student levy was $666. That number rose to an inflation-adjusted $796 in 2006.

Districts with lower tax bases have to fight for every nickel and dime. That creates a system where some districts can offer programs that enhance education while others lay off teachers and cut back successful initiatives such as early childhood education, world language and programs for gifted students.


The problem doesn't end at the school doors. Levy ballot questions often pit one community member against the other. Often one side will vilify the other. Some elections are influenced by outside political consultants who enhance divisions in the community to defeat the levy request. Some communities require years to heal from a divisive school levy election.

"Referendums are a horrible way to fund schools," one superintendent wrote. "They divide communities. 'Vote no' people need to trash the school to get their point across. The state needs to step up and raise enough revenue to properly fund schools."

Faced with an education funding crisis, Pawlenty has adhered to his "no new taxes" pledge and threatens to brandish a "veto pen." Meanwhile, the Legislature is currently working to reform the education funding formula. Unfortunately, tinkering with the system isn't enough. School districts need resources now.

We call on state public policy leaders to make the needed investments in our schools, roll back the onerous property tax levies, and relieve the financial burden that almost every superintendent says is ruining the quality of education. It's time to end the destructive cycle of needless teacher layoffs, program cuts and larger class sizes.

Our rural superintendents send a chilling call to St. Paul. Is anyone listening?

John Fitzgerald is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a non-partisan public policy think tank. Matt Entenza is the founder and chairman of Minnesota 2020.

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