PoliGraph: Parsing school funding claims


The legislative session is over, and DFLers are back in their districts talking up their accomplishments, including efforts to reduce the funding gap between urban and rural school districts.

Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, wrote that, “We’ve reduced the funding equity gap between metro and rural school districts by a third in two years after watching it double over the last decade.”

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, wrote that, “After a decade where the funding equity gap between metro and rural schools increased by 67 percent, we enacted legislation that cut this unfair funding disparity by a third in just two years.”

As with all things that involve public school financing, it’s complicated.

The Evidence

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Both Radinovich and Marquart point to a May 2014 presentation put together by the Minnesota Department of Education. Slide 63 shows the funding disparity between the state’s wealthiest and poorest schools over the course of more than two decades.

It’s a measurement the department has used for decades to determine whether Minnesota schools are on the same financial playing field.

In 2002, the funding gap between poor and wealthy schools was at about 18 percent – the lowest it had been in decades.

But as the Minnesota’s finances entered a rocky period, the state gave school districts the ability to ask for more money from local taxpayers in levy referendums.

The strategy was a boon to wealthy districts that had no problem getting more money from the taxpayers. But poor districts, where levy referendums were routinely voted down, didn’t do so well.

In 2012, the funding gap between poor and wealthy districts stood at about 30 percent – the highest it had been since 1998.

That’s why the Legislature approved several initiatives in the most recent session to chip away at the disparity. According to the education department’s calculations, the funding gap will drop by about a third between 2012 and 2016, when the new funding rules are in full affect.

House Republicans have done their own analysis that shows the funding gap is expanding by about 8 percent. They compared school funding in the seven county metro area with schools in the rest of the state, and point out that the education department is measuring differences between poor and rich districts, not necessarily urban and rural.

Education department finance director Tom Melcher says the House GOP has a point. But he adds that most rural schools would be at the bottom of the scale while there would be a mix of rural and urban schools at the top. Indeed, the vast majority of schools that have benefited from the new funding equity legislation are rural districts.

And the Minnesota Rural Education Association views the latest legislative actions as big benefit.

“As an advocate for rural schools, it’s a huge win,” said Sam Walseth, MREA Director of Legislative Affairs.

House Republicans also point out that their analysis includes other school funding streams, including money schools get for special education needs, while the education department analysis does not.

The Verdict

These claims posed a real quandary for PoliGraph, in large part because there are multiple ways to measure the gap between urban and rural schools

But because Radinovich and Marquart are using a long-standing measure to underscore their point that the funding gap is shrinking, and because the gap is shrinking due to new financing rules aimed at helping rural schools, PoliGraph says their claim leans toward accurate.