Monday, April 13, 2009

Senate Bill (Part III). There isn't a whole lot more to say about the Senate bill. As I reported in the first segment, the bill passed on a 37-29 vote. There was an amendment offered by Senator Ray Vandeveer (R-Forest Lake) that would have changed the distribution of the cuts, but it failed on a 30-36 vote, but as in the case of the bill's final passage, there was never much doubt as to what the final results would be. Once a bill comes out of committee, significant changes in the bill are extremely rare and there was no exception in this case.

A couple positives came out of the testimony I provided to the Senate E-12 Funding Division. I had a very productive conversation with Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL-Minneapolis). Senator Torres Ray defended the Senate bill during the committee proceedings, but she, like many of us, is tiring of the way that the current education funding formula seems to pit sets of districts against each other. My conversation with Senator Torres Ray made all the angst of the previous week worth it.

The current K-12 funding formula is a broken mess. SEE, as part of an active coalition, invested in completing a study showing the state's education funding system is at least $1 billion short in resources of what needs to be in the system. Let me be clear, the issues of resources and distribution are separate and can be addressed apart from each other. My primary complaint with the current formula is that the general education basic amount has no connection to the real needs faced by districts and, given that fact, the differences between school districts take precedence over the experiences and cost pressures that they all share. For districts with low revenue yield from the categorical formulas, the only method to generate additional revenue to meet the revenue gap resulting from an inadequate basic formula is to attempt to pass voter-approved operating referenda. Given the erosion of the referendum and debt service equalization programs, low property wealth districts have less ability to pass these referenda, leaving them at the lower end of the per pupil revenue rankings. Given the demographic and geographic profiles of SEE districts and their property tax sensitivity, they will probably remain below the state average in funding (someone has to), but I don't think being below average would necessarily be that bad if the state were providing resources adequate to meet the needs of students in these districts. That simply isn't the case right now and is at the heart of my complaint.

Minnesota's current formula is extremely political (with a lower-case "p") in that it has been jimmied and contorted to funnel just enough money into just enough districts to create a viable coalition that can continue to pass education funding bills and keep the status quo relatively in place. The reason we enlisted John Myers was to show that the basic foundation beneath all school districts was crumbling and needed to be bolstered. There is a very telling quote from the Montoy v. State of Kansas decision in which the Kansas education funding system was declared unconstitutional in 2005. In affirming a district court decision, the Kansas Supreme Court wrote: "Specifically, the district court found that the financing formula was not based upon actual costs to educate children but was instead based on former spending levels and political compromise"

That sentence pretty much sums up the current situation in Minnesota. The current formula does not provide adequacy in a larger sense to any district in the state, which makes the Senate bill, more in its overall level of funding instead of its distribution, a step in the wrong direction. Hopefully, this painful exercise will galvanize the education community in seeking positive changes that will bring more revenue into the system.

The text of the Senate bill can be found at:

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