Don’t believe holding schools harmless rhetoric


Phil Krinkie of the Taxpayers’ League is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Minnesotans when it comes to education funding in a recent Politics in Minnesota editorial.  During the years of the Pawlenty administration, per pupil state funding for Minnesota school districts failed to keep pace with inflation, while total K-12 spending as a percentage of the state general fund declined.

Krinkie talks about school funding levels with no mention of the role of inflation in driving down the purchasing power of the dollar.  Using the same measure of inflation for school districts that Krinkie voted in favor of while he was chair of the House Tax Committee, real state aid for K-12 education is projected to fall by 15 percent from the last year of the Ventura administration (FY 2003) to the last year of the Pawlenty administration (FY 2011).

Krinkie also makes much of the decline in school enrollment.  School enrollment will decline by one percent from FY 2003 to FY 2011 – hardly sufficient to justify a 15 percent decline in real state aid.  On a per-pupil basis, state aid declined by $1,366 (14 percent) in constant 2011 dollars over the last eight years.

From FY 2003 to FY 2011, K-12 spending as a portion of the state general fund is projected to fall from 40 percent to 38 percent.  Even after adjusting for accounting shifts, state aid to schools as a share of state general fund spending has declined during the Pawlenty years.

While school property taxes have shot up since FY 2003, the increases have not been sufficient to replace the real per pupil slide in state funding.  After federal recovery dollars disappear in FY 2012, total real per pupil school funding – including state aid, property taxes, and all other school revenue – is projected to be two percent less than it was in FY 2003.  In fact, per pupil spending for public elementary and secondary schools in Minnesota has fallen one percent below the national average based on the most current data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Meanwhile, school districts are confronting additional costs as the concentration of non-English speaking and other special need students increases and new testing requirements and achievement standards are foisted on public schools.  In addition, the funding decline cited above does not take into account the deleterious effect of funding shifts and aid payment delays upon school districts’ bottom line; these have compelled many districts to take short-term loans (with corresponding borrowing costs) in order to meet expenses.

State aid to school districts has not kept pace with inflation, resulting in real decline in the purchasing power of Minnesota school districts; all this was done to avoid the need for a state tax increase so that state leaders could maintain their misguided “no new tax” pledge.  The result: spiraling local property taxes and a real decline in the dollars available to pay for education.

In his Politics in Minnesota editorial, Krinkie cites the film “Jerry Maguire.”  A more appropriate analogy from the world of cinema is the 2005 documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”  Like the unscrupulous executives in the movie, anti-tax pundits are making bogus claims based upon tortured accounting.

Fortunately, Phil Krinkie and the merry pranksters at the Fact Slayers’ League are not the smartest guys in the room – only the most persistent.  The claim that real state aid to schools has increased is the fallacy that “no new tax” devotees are trotting out in order to conceal the failure of their own policies.  Real state aid has fallen and school property taxes have spiraled as a result of the “no new tax” orthodoxy.  All the Enron accounting in the world will not change this fact.