Support your public school levies but press the state for more, smarter investment


Warning signs: crowded classrooms, textbooks older than the students, disappearing arts and music programs, skyrocketing fees for extra-curricular activity, constant fund-raising appeals, and shabbier school buildings and grounds.

Opinion: Support your public school levies but press the state for more, smarter investment

And most worrisome of all, declining graduation rates and too few young people obtaining the higher education credentials that are vital for personal success in today’s economy.

Conscientious Minnesotans, who know that good public schools are vital to our entire economy and quality of life, will be supporting their school districts’ requests for mostly modest, basic operating levy increases when they go to the polls on Nov. 6.

But we also have every right to be irked about these costs being forced down to local property taxpayers. And we have an obligation to exercise our political muscle on two fronts after Nov. 6.

First, we must reverse the lagging investment by state government in the essential, prosperity-building business of public education. Second, we must press for more effective interventions that improve student outcomes from early childhood straight through to eventual higher education attainment. In short, we need to invest more at the state level, and spend that money in smarter ways to improve student success.

Tax fairness issue also is central to the problem. Declining state investment in public education and increasing reliance on local property taxes translates to less fairness in the tax system by shifting a disproportionately large share of the tax burden on to middle and low-income families. Income taxes collected by the state, on the other hand, are more fair because they are based on taxpayers’ ability to pay. High-income Minnesotans already pay a substantially smaller percentage of their income in state-and-local taxes than middle- and low-income residents.

A near record number of Minnesota school districts, about 100 in all and almost one third of all districts, will hold property tax referendums for basic operating levies this fall. This plethora of referendums is the direct result of inflation-adjusted cuts in state aid for public education.

Beginning with the 2003 school fiscal year, Governor Ventura and the Legislature eliminated general education property taxes and provided increased state aid to make up the difference. The result of this was a significant one-year decline in school property taxes across the state.

However, from 2003 to 2007 total state aid to Minnesota public schools has fallen by $869 million after adjusting for inflation in school costs. This amounts to a cumulative loss of about $1,000 per pupil over the four year period. In this way, a wrongheaded “no new (state) taxes’’ pledge was upheld, but the state constitution’s solemn requirement “to make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools’’ was compromised.

This gradual but chronic funding shortage has been compounded by a rash of state and federal requirements imposed on schools in recent years, including expensive testing requirements associated with the “No Child Left Behind” program. Other cost-driving factors beyond the control of local school boards include increasing numbers of students with special needs—such as non-English speaking students, special education students, and students in poverty.

Critics of public schools produce isolated anecdotes about mismanagement in schools and resort to selective statistics showing school funding increases in raw dollars, unadjusted for inflation. But inflation for school costs—especially for heating fuel for buildings, gasoline for buses, and teacher healthcare—has been significantly greater than ordinary household inflation. According to Parents United for Public Schools, per pupil state state aid has increased on average by 1.61 percent annually since 1993, while the annual rate of inflation over the same period has been about 3 percent.

Defenders of the status quo might point out that for 2008, the Legislature did approve additional state funding for public education. However:
• Most of that increase was dedicated to pay for state and federally mandated special education costs and is not available to directly fund general education.
• The total school aid increase from 2007 to 2008 is sufficient to replace less than one-quarter of the cuts from 2003 to 2007.
• Due to the inability of state leaders to increase state taxes, the increase in school funding in 2008 is paid for with one-time dollars and therefore is not sustainable into the future. By 2010, real school aid to Minnesota school districts is projected to drop below what it was in 2007.

To the extent that they can personally afford it, taxpayers should support local school property tax increases. Sadly, in the short term there is no other way for generating adequate funding for public schools.

In the long term, however, more state funding for schools is needed in order to relieve dependence on local property taxes. In addition, new ways to improve school performance are needed. Shortly after Election Day, Growth & Justice, a Minnesota think tank that focuses on progressive solutions for promoting statewide prosperity, will unveil a comprehensive menu of options aimed directly at improving student outcomes and achieving higher educational attainment.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive think tank based in St. Paul and focused on economic policy. Jeff Van Wychen is a fiscal analyst and consultant for local governments in Minnesota.