VOICES | Our public schools are still a good investment


The “Strong Schools, Strong City” levy referendum on which we will vote in November is a call for a breakthrough in Minneapolis education. Imagine this: we invest in our community schools and the growing needs of our urban students, and Minneapolis holds its own as one of the most highly educated populations in our country.

We have high numbers of high school and college graduates. According to the Brookings Institution’s 2005 “Mind the Gap” report, the latter has held true. In 2000, the Twin Cities ranked high for median income (14th) among the 100 largest metro areas.

According to a 2008 report by state economist Tom Stinson and state demographer Tom Gillaspy, however, the prosperity Minnesota enjoys today is due to “wise decisions made 50[-plus] years ago,” including “investment in education and human capital.”

Now, metro-area workers are aging, the achievement gap between white students and students of color is one of the largest in the country, and our citizens’ investment in education is not keeping pace with the rising costs of inflation. By the time you read this, the number of workers turning age 62 may have already jumped to 30 percent. As our baby boomers retire, Minneapolis will increasingly rely on the students in today’s urban classrooms.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), like all public schools, is a cornerstone of democracy. MPS subscribes to the 100 percent rule, which simply means they agree to responsibly educate each child who comes through their doors, regardless of that child’s life circumstances.

While we may compare our public schools to other businesses from time to time, let’s be clear on one thing: our public schools do not get to choose their raw material. In addition, our schools pay much less towards administration. While most businesses scream if their administrative budget is less than 7 percent of their income, MPS pays only 3.5 percent of its costs towards its administration (compared to a 4.2 percent average for most Minnesota districts). Yet, the mission of MPS is firm: to grant all children — even those with compromised access to housing and health care — an education that will lift them from poverty to meet the challenges of a global economy.

Our state has invested well in our Minneapolis children, and for good reason. According to MPS data for 2008–2009, 65.6 percent of our students receive free or reduced-cost lunches (a standard gauge for poverty); 23.2 percent are English language learners and 15.9 percent are in special education.

More than 70 percent of Minneapolis public schools students are students of color, and by nearly any indicator, the statistics are not in their favor. According to the Brookings Institution, minority households in the Twin Cities metropolitan area have incomes at least $20,000 lower than white households. Their home-ownership rate is 20 percentage points less than that of whites, and they live with a wide disparity of health care resources — 33 percent of Latinos lack health insurance, compared to 5 percent of whites and 12 percent of African Americans.

Unfortunately, our state investment in Minneapolis children has not kept up with the rising costs of energy and fuel oil, gasoline, educational books and supplies, and medical care for education professionals. However, mandates for high-stakes testing, special education services, transportation, English language learning, health and safety, physical education, drug and sex education (to name a few) are rising exponentially.

The cuts over the last decade have cost us dearly in other ways: fewer enrichment programs like art and music, books and technology that are often older than our students; poor facility maintenance, and a greater reliance on parent fundraising (which can exacerbate equity disparities among schools).

Something — someone — has got to give. I suggest that it be us, the citizens of Minneapolis. Our schools’ burden is our opportunity. We in Minneapolis are smart enough to know that, in our globalized world, with the growing diversity of residents and students, maintaining our current standard of living means that we must invest in our human capital — our public school students.

Our schools can make a significant difference in closing the race and class disparities that plague our urban students. There are proven interventions that work, and MPS’s new Strategic Plan aims to apply them: to help all children read at grade-level by third grade, to prepare all children for algebra by eighth grade, to expose all students to cutting-edge technology and culturally-competent textbooks and, finally, to continue an investment in lower class sizes.

The referendum will allow our schools to do all of the above at an increase of $60 million in annual revenue per year. For the average homeowner, this amounts to a monthly increase of $17. That’s about 50 cents a day to bring critical resources to many children whose greatest hope is a strong education.

50 cents a day to boost our schools’ achievement at a time when fuel costs are attracting families back into the city. That’s a small price for our future adults whose earnings will fund our retirement and Minneapolis prosperity. And we can also expect home values to increase as our schools and their students grow stronger.

Kate Towle is co-chair of the MPS District Parent Advisory Council, a member of the Strong Schools, Strong City volunteer committee and the parent of two MPS students. She lives in the Prospect Park/East River Road neighborhood.