OPINION | K-12's funding renaissance

Knowledge is power. Knowledge is also a job path to prosperity and stability. Prosperity and stability flow from the purposeful application of knowledge to public and personal circumstance. The sooner we realize that expanding knowledge builds a better, growing Minnesota, the sooner we’ll get there.

Applying this transformative idea, however, appears to be a one-sided endeavor. This week, the State House of Representatives majority rolled out its K12 Education Policy and Finance Bill. It proposes investing more money in every level of Minnesota education. Conservative policymakers fell all over themselves protesting the move, insisting that the bill dramatically expands big government.

And, in the sense that state government substantially funds K12 education, they’re correct. But, conservative public policymakers aren’t concerned with big government so much as they’re working very hard to maintain conservative public policy gains over the past ten-plus years. If big government means keeping income taxes low for the highest income earners relative to working and middle class Minnesotans, then they’re quietly all for big government. But, if big government means creating progressive taxation policy so that obligation rises with capacity and achievement, then conservative are opposed.

Wading through the outrage, it’s important to keep two facts in mind. First, Minnesota is spending thirteen percent fewer inflation-adjusted dollars on K12 education per pupil than it was spending ten years ago. Second, to balance the 2011 state budget, state policymakers “borrowed” $2.4 billion from K12 schools by delaying the state’s transfer payments to schools. Framed as a promise to still pay the allocated funds, it was a snatch and run tactic. The state, following a frustratingly pointless government shutdown, used school money to meet its obligations while shifting a considerable and unexpected burden on to school kids, school boards and school district property tax payers’ backs.

The result? Property taxes continued increasing while school budgets were slashed. Through it all, Minnesota’s highest income earners paid a lower percentage of their income in taxes than the other 98% of Minnesotans. This is what needs to change. It’s not a matter of vengeance—vengeance is always poor public policy—but simply acting on the goal of creating prosperity, stability and growth.

If we want a state economy built on low-wage, low-skill labor producing the goods and activities within the capacity of a low-wage, low-skill workforce, Minnesota becomes a very different Minnesota. As workforce quality and skill diminishes, employers will start making hard decisions about moving to markets with more knowledgeable, adaptive and flexible workers. Suddenly, we no longer have 20 Fortune 500 companies headquartered here, second-best nationally per capita. Suddenly, wages not only stagnate but slide backwards for workers. Nobody earns $50,000 per year making cheap sub sandwiches. This decline will have all the charm and certainty of a well-engineered toilet flush.

The House Education Bill doesn’t go far enough but it’s a good start. Superintendents and school boards dislike radically shifting budget allocations. Sudden spikes, up or down, create instability leaving school leaders wondering about the proverbial rug being pulled out from under them. That would be the rug recently represented by the $2.4 billion school funding shift. We’re still trying to understand the harm caused but even without aggregate data analysis, student learning and achievement was compromised simply by the budget cuts caused by school districts borrowing money to meet operational expenses. This is not how responsible policymakers prepare students to enter the workforce as knowledge workers.

Minnesota was not originally a knowledge-based worker state. We were—and substantially still are—an extractive commodities state. We grew crops, felled timber and mined ore, sending nearly all of it to eastern U.S. markets. Before that, the first extractive industry trapped beavers and hunted game for fur pelts but demand quickly outpaced animals’ reproductive capacity. Soon, there was little game left but trapping helped establish trading networks.

Agriculture and forestry are sustainable industries. Crops and trees are replanted for subsequent harvest. These activities require knowledge workers but they function on such a large scale that only a relatively few workers are required. Iron ore mining nearly collapsed until University of Minnesota research created the modern taconite industry, extending Minnesota’s mining industry’s economic role. But, in all of these cases, extractive industries ship commodities and their profits beyond Minnesota’s borders. Knowledge work keeps a greater share at home, stabilizing communities, strengthening families and creating opportunity.

Minnesota needs schools that can meet Minnesota’s future workforce education needs. We’re never going to realize growing prosperity and wealth by taking money out of schools and universities. That’s why tax reform and smart investments in schools, affordable healthcare and jobs will move Minnesota forward. We tried it the other way for well over ten years. It hasn’t worked and it’s not going to work.

Knowledge is power. Wisdom is the capacity to appropriately and confidently apply knowledge. Let’s work smart for our future. The K12 bill puts Minnesota on a better path.

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    John Van Hecke's picture
    John Van Hecke

    John Van Hecke is the executive director of Minnesota 2020.