Minnesota Miracle hearings come to town

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You don’t often hear state representatives called “heroic” by members of the public, particularly when they propose to increase spending.

At South High School on October 6, though, the members of the K-12 Education Finance Committee were bombarded with “bravos” for their efforts to craft the New Minnesota Miracle bill, which proposes to restore and simplify much of the public financing for schools that has bled away over the last 15 or more years.

The six committee members have been traveling around the state this year to gauge public reaction to the bill, drum up support, and gather information on whether the bill actually meets local needs.

“We’ve actually been hearing a lot of that,” said Representative Mindy Greiling, the Committee Chair, describing voters’ commendations and “great relief that this is a big-picture effort.” She also said many rural areas have criticized parts of the bill that give extra aid to metro-area schools to compensate for higher employee salaries due to higher metro-area costs of living. Others have voiced concern that the bill does not do enough to fund early childhood education.

A few speakers at Monday night’s hearing raised the specter of economic collapse, including Minneapolis school board candidate Carla Bates, asking how that might impact school funding if the bill was passed. Rep. Greiling responded by telling this reporter that fully funding education was a “moral imperative,” and suggesting the bill would be part of the solution to any depression.

“As our state economist [Tom Stinson] has said, education investment …offers the greatest return on investment,” and would support the Minnesota economy, Greiling said.

In a nutshell, the bill would set the basic per-pupil state aid high enough to “cover districts’ basic instructional needs” like teachers’ salaries, using a highly simplified formula, said Tim Strom, the state government’s non-partisan researcher. The current formula has about 10 complex steps that make it hard for the average citizen to understand it.

Additional formulas would:

• provide additional assistance for districts with more poor children,

• fully fund the state’s share of Special Education budgets,

• eliminate Q-Comp funding for improving teachers’ skills,

• and, most importantly, link state education aid to inflation.

A detailed description of the bill is available here. Detailed descriptions of current finance models are available here and here.

According to Strom, who presented the bill’s details at the hearing, changes in the formula would also apply to charter schools. Particularly of interest to charter schools that provide their own busing would be a provision to add 25% of each school’s transportation costs to its baseline state aid package. This provision would apply to both district and charter public schools.

Several MPS students from South and Roosevelt High Schools testified before the committee, describing the importance of extracurricular activities in their lives, and how state aid often keeps those activities funded.

Extracurriculars like football “keep us engaged,” said one Roosevelt student, and offer support when their home lives turn rocky.

Asked what he wanted to get out of the South High hearings, Representative Jim Davnie of Minneapolis said he hoped “to lay a knowledge base for the committee,” to get a sense of MPS’s priorities, the district’s challenges, and “to clearly identify shortfalls in [MPS’s] performance and hear how they’re going to overcome those.” Davnie hoped these would help the committee bring a fair bill before the full legislature that met everyone’s needs, despite rural-urban acrimony.

“Slicing up the pie into smaller pieces won’t get any district their needed resources,” Davnie said after the hearings.

The South High hearings were the first held in Minnesota’s urban core, and the last to be held before the elections on November 4. Hearings will resume with the start of the new legislative session in January.

James Sanna is an intern and covers education issues for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Questions, comments, and tips are welcome at james.sanna@gmail.com