Wednesday, January 07, 2009

If CSI is a TV Show, SSI is. . . .Give up? SSI (or the Shared Service Initiative) is the Governor's latest education proposal that was introduced at a press conference this morning (pictured at right). In actuality, it is not solely the Governor's proposal, but has bipartisan support and will be authored by Senator Terry Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) and Representative Ryan Winkler (DFL-St. Louis Park). The bill will be introduced and heard in the Senate E-12 Funding/Policy Division tomorrow (Thursday, January 8).

The bill is straightforward. Although the legislation contains several other Minnesota Department of Education initiatives that were part of the vetoed 2008 omnibus education policy bill, the central theme of the bill clearly revolves around the promotion of shared services between public schools, whether they are district schools or charter schools. The main services the bill seeks to have purchased on a shared basis are support services like payroll, food service, technology, and transportation. Whether or not it makes sense for all of these services to be purchased on a shared basis remains to be seen, but this effort is certainly going to garner thorough discussion.

While the basic concept is valid and even compelling at a level, various Governors and Legislatures have an uneven record when it comes to promoting greater cooperation and shared purchasing by districts. The concept is not new. The Regional Development Commissions and by extension the Education Cooperative Service Units (now simply Service Cooperatives) created in the early 1970s were intended to foster greater cooperation between the local units of government located in each region and the Service Cooperatives have long practiced cooperative purchasing to provide individual districts with greater buying power.

In addition, the Legislature created the intermediate districts in the 1970s, inter-district cooperation revenue in the early 1980s, and the education districts in the late 1980s to provide districts with a venue for joint purchases of direct instructional services, especially in the areas of special and vocational education. They also maintained a revenue stream for purchases made in a cooperative manner after individual categorical revenue for multi-district entities was eliminated in the early 1990s.

At the same time, the Legislature has at several junctures made decisions with at least an indirect effect of discouraging cooperation. The regional computing consortiums were eliminated in the 1980s. As stated above, revenue that went to multi-district entities was sent directly to districts in the early 1990s and although it was reserved for cooperative purchases for several years, it was folded ultimately rolled into the general education formula basic amount.

Given this history, it wouldn't take much to make a skeptic out of even the most casual observer. That isn't to say the concept doesn't have merit. There are a number of bugs that need to be worked out and it's not beyond the realm of reason to believe that can be done. What is needed most, however, is a clear direction as to what state policy makers want the school system--both districts and charter schools--to look like, set up the framework and expectations and then stick with the program for a decade to let districts (and charters) adhere to these policy decisions.

As I said earlier, the bill will be up on Thursday and I will be testifying. I'll let you know how it goes.

Education Week Grades Out. Education Week has published its annual "Quality Counts" results that grade each state on a number of measures. Minnesota has fallen to 24th in the Education Week survey, earning a "C" grade. It earns a C range grade in four of the six categories with a B+ in the Chance-for-Success category and a D+ in the Teaching Profession category.

Our slide is not a surprise to those in the education community, at least in this state. We have all seen a dramatic erosion in the amount of support accorded to public education along with the rise in mandates that continually absorb increasing portions of school budgets. What is a surprise to me is that we continue to earn a B+ grade in the equity portion of the education finance category.

The explanation of the B+ grade is so simplistic that it once again begs the question of "who really understands education funding." The main reason the equity grade is so high is the same lame explanation provided by the State Auditor a few years back when a report issued by the office showed that property wealth had little direct effect on the amount of general education a district received.

On its face, this is a legitimate point, but once you peel off the first layer of the veneer, the argument falls apart. I always use the Wayzata/Rockford example. Given the fact it receives more equity revenue than Wayzata, Rockford receives slightly more revenue than Wayzata when the referendum is eliminated from the calculation of general revenue. When the referendum is added to the calculation, however, Wayzata simply leaves Rockford in the dust. These are districts that sit right next to each other and there are similar comparisons that can be made. I am not going to trash high-wealth districts for their ability (and willingness on the part of their voters) to pass excess levies, but for a publication with supposedly as much expertise as Education Week to not comprehend that differences in property wealth as expressed through the passage of referenda, along with Minnesota's considerable commitment to compensatory revenue and sparsity, are the major reasons for discrepencies in school district funding.

Here is the link:

In one interesting note, it is telling (at least to me) that four states ranking well above Minnesota--Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland--have all undergone major education funding reform within the last decade either through lawsuits or task forces. Food for thought.

House Committee Rosters. As promised, here are the House committee rosters for the K-12 Policy Committee and the K-12 Funding Division.

Policy Committee:

Funding Division:

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