GOP education plan has educators seething

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On Thursday afternoon, the state Senate passed a highly contentious education budget bill that has many in the Minneapolis schools seething. They see the bill, and its sibling passed by the state House of Representatives on Monday, as an attempt to put their districts on a “starvation diet.” 

And, as poor Minnesotans move to the northern and southern suburbs in increasing numbers, some wonder if the Republican proposal is setting schools in many of their members’ districts up for failure.

“What do they know about kids living in poverty, about kids whose parents are refugees and immigrants? What do they know about those experiences and challenges? ” said Minneapolis School Board Chair Jill Davis, speaking about GOP legislators who approved the plan to defund Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth public schools by $415, $395 and $132 per student, respectively.

“Every child deserves every opportunity they can get, and to not have this be a driving value of this legislation makes me very angry,” Davis said.

Holding mostly true to their promise not to raise taxes, Republicans passed an education funding bill that shifts money from three kinds of dedicated school funding – integration funding, “compensatory” funding for districts that have high concentrations of poor students, and a fund to help districts manage rapidly growing special education costs – to increase the basic per-pupil aid given to schools by the state. The money Minneapolis will loose has previously been used to provide support services for poor students, students who are still learning English and special education students.

“It doesn’t mean they can’t learn,” said Sarah Snapp, budget director for the Minneapolis Public Schools. “It just means we have to do more as a school system and as a community to give them what they need so that they can do more.”

The problem, Snapp said, is that those supports are all very personnel-intensive.

The same rule holds true in Worthington, a rural town in the southwestern corner of the state that has become a magnet for Latino and Asian immigrants over the last 15 years, according to superintendent John Landgaard.

“Right now, we have three Hispanic interpreters,” Landgaard said. “We also added three ELL [English Language Learners] teachers just last year, we have different software programs, and we have put in place educational specialists to help address some of those challenges [faced by ELL students].”

All these positions cost money, and after years of state education budgets that have either cut funding or not kept pace with inflation, there’s not much of that green stuff to go around.

“If we loose integration funding, for example,” said Minneapolis’ Snapp, “we’ll have to eliminate [the magnet schools it funds], or find another way to fund them. But if we find another way to fund them, and that would mean taking money from general aid [the basic $5,124 that districts get from the state per student under the GOP proposal].”

If the cuts were to pass, most districts would be seeing modest increases of around $50 per student. This pales in comparison to the potential $415-per-student loss that Minneapolis schools’ Snapp said would devastate the district’s ability to pay for support services. As suburban school systems like Anoka-Hennepin, Hopkins, Elk River, Eden Prairie, North St Paul, Rosemount-Apple Valley and others see more and more “vulnerable students” move into their districts, they could be on the hook to provide a lot more services than they have the money to pay for.

An analysis of data from the Minnesota Department of Education shows that many of these districts, which cover many mostly Republican-controlled legislative districts around the Twin Cities metro, have seen their numbers of ELL students grow by between one and 10 percent between 2003 and 2009. However, most have seen their numbers of poor students jump by 40, 60 or even 341 percent (in the case of the Elk River school district), although increases of between 40 and 100 percent were more the norm. The Farmington school district, which is partly represented by House Education Finance Committee Chair Pat Garofalo, saw its numbers of poor students jump by 128 percent. Garofalo did not return calls requesting comment on this story.

As reported in the Star-Tribune on Thursday, and previously noted by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty in 2010, these demographic trends are long-term, and not necessarily related to the impact of the economic downturn.

Jim Grathwol, the Minneapolis schools’ state lobbyist, says he thinks the potentially short-sighted budget bill is fueled by the large number of freshmen in GOP ranks, and the relative inexperience of GOP leaders in the House and Senate.

“They may not know how to do this three-way dance,” Grathwol said, speaking of budget negotiations.

“They see what they think are worse results costing more money [in the Minneapolis and St Paul schools], and they want that money back,” he added, referring to the achievement gap between poor students of color and white students.

“There’s an attempt to pin the achievement gap fail on the core cities donkey – it’s a twofer with political appeal, as the core cities are mostly DFL strongholds,” he said.