Task force recommends revamping state education funding

Education task force
Fergus Falls superintendent Jerry Ness and Battle Lake principal Jeff Drake look over a report during the Minnesota Education Finance Working Group meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 27 2012. The group is recommending the state overhaul how it pays for education and increase funding for schools.
MPR News/Tim Post

A state task force is suggesting big changes in how the state pays for education as an attempt to create stable and fair funding for Minnesota schools. The effort, however, will face challenges as lawmakers wrestle with the state's budget deficit.

On Tuesday, a group appointed by the Minnesota Department of Education recommended the state increase aid to schools by 7 percent. The group calls for a return to the days of a statewide education levy funded by property taxes to reduce the need for voter-approved local levies to prop up districts' operating budgets.

The task force's recommendations are based on the belief that the state's education finance system is broken.

Minnesota school officials have long complained that state funding for education is not keeping pace with inflation.

One of the task force's main proposals is a funding increase of $633 million a year for schools, phased in over several years. As much as one-third would go toward special education.

"People have recognized for a long time that special ed has been underfunded and I think this process really did address that," said Deb Wall, director of special education for the Forest Lake school district and a task force member.

Another major proposal in the recommendations would reduce schools' reliance on voter-approved operating levies. School districts have increasingly turned to the local tax levies to cover their operating expenses. In fact, 90 percent of school districts now have them in place.

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said that system is unfair because it hurts school districts that don't win voter approval on levies.

"One district is cutting programs and raising class sizes, another district isn't. And so then you have these enrollment fluctuations that happen from one district to the next and it becomes very challenging and difficult to sustain very high academic programming for students," Cassellius said. "We want to be sure that we also find some solutions in correcting that problem as well."

To correct it, the task force recommends going back to the days when Minnesota had a statewide education levy funded by property taxes, shifting away from local taxpayer-funded levies. While most property owners wouldn't see a change in their tax bills, some districts could experience an increase while others see a decrease.

Task force member Amy Walstien, also with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said she is concerned the recommendations don't paint a full picture of how property taxes will be affected.

"We are looking for further information on the full package of how the property tax proposals are going to play out," Walstien said.

In the end it's up to Gov. Mark Dayton and state lawmakers to hash out what, if any, changes are made to the state's education finance system in the coming session.

State Rep. Paul Marquart, a DFLer from Dilworth, will chair the House Education Finance Committee next year. He said this year's recommendations will have a place at his committee table next session.

"I think the time is right to really take a look at how we finance education," Marquart said.

He said the state should not merely add extra money to the school funding formula, but that, "Any new dollars that go into education need to be directed toward strategies and efforts that have a proven track record of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap."

Even if the recommendations are welcomed by state lawmakers next session, talk of any extra money for education will tempered by lawmakers' need to balance the state budget. At last check, the state faces a shortfall of more than $1 billion over the next two years.

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