Peter Hutchinson, president of the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation, spoke with MPR's Morning Edition to provide more context for the debate over K-12 education funding.
Hutchinson served as state finance commissioner during the 1980s under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. In the mid-'90s he spent four years as superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Hutchinson was also the Independence Party's candidate for governor in 2006, but has not endorsed anyone in this year's race for governor.
Cathy Wurzer: Emmer and Horner both plan to delay payments to schools as part of their budget solution. Mark Dayton says he may have to delay payments, too, if he can't find savings or revenue elsewhere. What's the practical effect on schools, students and teachers of delaying those payments?
Peter Hutchinson: The narrow way to think about this is that the school districts have to go out and borrow, short term, a whole bunch of money.
Now that sounds terrible, except that interest rates are so close to zero that it's actually not very expensive -- I would guess across the state we're probably talking $10 or $20 million in borrowing costs, which no one would like to pay. But it's a heck of a lot better than $1.5 billion or whatever it is that we would have to cut if we were going to do it some other way.
So it's a relatively cheap deal today. If interest rates go up, if interest rates went from 1 percent to 5 percent, now you're talking $100 (million,, $150 (million), $200 million -- that's going to feel just like a cut.
So for now we're getting by, but I think the bigger challenge ... you're either going to repay the loan, which I don't think is going to happen, or you're going to have to find a way to make education less expensive by about $1.5 billion, and that is no mean feat.
Wurzer: Where do you look for $1 billion in reductions? Consolidating school districts?
Hutchinson: There's only one way to take real cost out of schools, and that's class size. In Minnesota, and it's true nationally, over the last 25 years we've been running one of the largest educational reform initiatives ever attempted, and this was to reduce class sizes. And we succeeded.
Class sizes are down almost 50 percent from where they were 20 to 25 years ago. And that's the reason, by the way, that spending has gone up so much. It's not actually teachers taking home a lot more dough. It's the number of teachers in every classroom has gone up so dramatically, and we just don't see the results.
Wurzer: Some people say educational spending has gone down, not up.
Hutchinson: If you look back over time, 20 or 25 years, we're spending almost twice as much per pupil in real dollars -- take inflation out -- than we were 20 to 25 years ago. And the truth is we're not getting any different educational outcomes.
Wurzer: When you hear some candidates, including DFLer Mark Dayton, say they want to spend more money on education, what do you think?
Hutchinson: Whoever is the next governor, let's assume they last for eight years. While they're governor, almost half the teachers in that period of time will leave teaching and be replaced. It's 25,000 teachers, by the way. That's the big opportunity that I think we have in this state.
If I could give the new governor one piece of advice that's what would be: Try to make the next 25,000 teachers the most fabulous teachers we could have. And we can make them the most fabulous teachers in Minnesota without spending more money, because we are going to replace them. Their salaries are already in the budget.
I think it would never be a bad thing if we spent more money on the schools. But it would be a bad thing if we didn't use that money to, in the next 10 years, to dramatically alter who goes into teaching, and to make sure that we put in front of our kids the very best teaching force we possibly can, and it's within our reach.
(Interview transcribed and edited by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)