“Hold harmless” means “harming schools”


Minnesota’s three major party gubernatorial candidates debated educational policy on the morning of Sept. 10. The debate, hosted by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, yielded a much-bandied about phrase, commonly heard during legislative sessions: “hold harmless.”

Specifically, State Representative Tom Emmer, the Republican candidate, pledged to hold K-12 funding harmless in the next budget biennium. Specifically, he promised to repay the $1.4 billion budget shift in 2014. That means he’d pay back the money that the State of Minnesota promised Minnesota’s schools then declined to disburse in order to balance this most recent state budget.

Hold your horses, Representative Emmer. Let’s slow down and ask what, exactly, does “hold harmless” mean?

I’ll fairly ask all 201 Minnesota legislators the same question. We’ve heard “hold harmless” from both DFL and GOP caucuses as they’ve jimmied educational funding to resolve the state budget deficit. I’m not playing favorites here. Raiding school piggy banks is an unconscionable act that compromises Minnesota’s future prosperity. Rep. Emmer, however, seems among the few elected officials still using the phrase.

The idea behind “hold harmless” is simple. It means “you shall not be harmed.” However, the phrase is actually an Orwellian rhetorical dodge that, like all things labeled Orwellian, means the opposite. By withholding funds and by rejiggering state transfer payment schedules, the state is harming schools. The euphemism, “hold harmless,” is supposed to distract us from what’s really going on.

We’re not fooled.

I think the education policy debate is healthy, necessary and welcome. Watch the replay at The Uptake. I applaud all three candidates for engaging this difficult issue because Minnesota’s persistent recession is yielding less tax revenue, causing public budget deficits. The solution lies in making tough budget-cutting decisions, increasing state taxes, and crafting effective economic development strategies that create jobs and grow Minnesota’s economy.  People understand that challenge but don’t claim that underfunding schools will hold them harmless.

Telling us that it’s raining, while spitting in our ear, doesn’t work either.