Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The K-12 Shift Comes Back to Haunt Us

As this legislative session gets underway, the GOP has come out swinging and they've got Minnesota's public K-12 schools squarely in their sights.

H.R. 2 authored by Rep. Buesgens (R-Jordan) puts out a proposal as to where K-12 spending levels should be set for this biennium. He fiercely defends these numbers by claiming that this is not a cut in funding, but rather simply a freeze to previous spending levels. I would disagree with that assertion for a number of reasons. (Many of these are based on issues I've previously discussed here.) For one, under this bill the legislature will NOT repay the funding shift that diverted allotted money from our schools in order to temporarily balance the budget.

This was a major concern at the time this shift was enacted by then Gov. Pawlenty, with many in public education opposing such a move mainly because they knew that there was absolutely no guarantee that the future legislature would pay it back. I also suspected this may be part of the plan proposed by the Republicans. That suspicion was largely confirmed by the non-committal answers I received from candidate Tom Emmer when I asked him about this issue at the state fair. As Rep. Buesgens asserts in his defense of the proposal, previous legislatures cannot tie the hands of future legislatures. Which is exactly why so many opposed funding shifts to start with. They knew that in all likelihood it was merely a cut disguised as a delay.

Many Conservatives rightly point out that the DFL controlled House at the time also proposed a K-12 funding shift. They argue that it is hypocritical to be opposed to Pawlenty's shift but in favor of the one proposed by the DFL. What that argument missed what that there is a substantial legal difference in a legislative shift and a unilateral shift implemented by the Governor. MinnPost addressed just that in an article at the time.  As they noted:

"Some schools worry that if this remains Pawlenty's unilateral shift, there will be no legal authority mandating that the schools ever receive the $1.8 billion. If it becomes a legislative shift, state law requires that the schools be second in line to be paid back, right after rainy-day funds are restocked. Payback might take 10 or 20 years, but eventually there would be a payback. ... Though school funding shifts have become an almost routine part of the biennial state budget balancing act, the governor's unilateral action was unique. There is concern among some legislators, school superintendents and, perhaps, even the governor about no payback requirement tied to the governor's action. And some school officials fear that at the end of the biennium in 2011, the $1.8 billion will simply disappear into thin air."

It looks like their fears are coming true. In short, Minnesota law contains guarantees that any legislative shift be repaid. It has no such provisions that apply to a governor's unilateral cuts through unallotment.

MNpublius breaks down why they view this not as a simple freeze in funding levels, but actually a 20% cut. This is in large part because it views the spending levels at the amount of money the schools actually received, not considering the amount taken away in the shift. Because that was proclaimed a temporary measure, many schools that saw little benefit in further slashing their services, took out loans to cover the missing funding until it was repaid. They factor in that combined with the fact that because funding is determined on a per pupil basis and schools are expecting increased enrollment, under long used funding calculations they were actually anticipating an increase in funds to accommodate the additional students.

Instead our schools are left with broken promises, further public demonization, and the challenge of continuing to serve more students with fewer resources.

Update: Speaking of education proposals, it's also worth noting that there is another proposal in the works in the Senate that would freeze wages for ALL public school employees.

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