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Agreement tough on education funding needs

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans long have made education a top priority, so much so that taxpayers have been willing to dedicate close to half of the state's $34 billion, two-year budget to schools.

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Despite strong support for schools, it's surprisingly difficult to get a clear answer to a deceptively simple question: How much does it cost to provide a Minnesota child with a good education?

Parents, education groups and lawmakers all want to know the answer.

If the basic costs of education are better understood, the thinking goes, then everyone could get behind the dollar amount and proceed to sell it to taxpayers, creating a consistent stream of money to fund schools economically and equitably.

But there is not even agreement on where to begin the discussion.

"Before we talk about money, we need to talk about how it's going to be used," state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said.

Seagren said state funds should be focused on measures like Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Q-Comp program, which provides bonuses for quality teachers. Seagren added that the key to better students lies in supporting skilled teachers and school leaders who create high expectations for children.

In the past few years, there seems to have been no end to the number of task forces assigned to get to the bottom of the funding question.

In 2003, Gov. Tim Pawlenty created a task force to address the question. While it came up with different estimates on the cost of education, it did not result in any reforms or changes to the state's education funding system.

Many educators and parents were frustrated that the governor's task force didn't result in any reforms.

They banded together to form a coalition called PS Minnesota. Using the same consultant who worked with the governor's task force, the group determined that Minnesota short changes education by $1 billion a year.

If that amount were added to the basic per-student funding formula, it would equate to an extra $1,000 for each of Minnesota's approximately 1 million students in grades kindergarten through 12.

PS Minnesota spokesman Greg Vandal said a significant increase in spending is needed to ensure that all public school students have an equal playing field to succeed in meeting federal and state performance measures.

"We believe there are more losers than winners in the current funding system," said Vandal. "Right now funding differs district to district depending on the property wealth or the political will of the district."

Vandal, superintendent of Sauk Rapids-Rice public schools, said many districts, including his own, are at a serious economic disadvantage, "but we're still required to deliver the same academic standards as wealthier districts."

Education Minnesota, the state's teachers' union, has not signed on to PS Minnesota's recommendation for a $1 billion infusion into the budget. But it does share the coalition's view that the state should spend more money on public education.

"The real question is, what do Minnesotans want and expect from their public schools?" asked Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher. "We have failed to put forward that question and adequately answer it."

Dooher said that when determining education costs, taxpayers and lawmakers must think beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and educate the kind of well-rounded student who will build the state's economy

"Education is a complex organization, built on how students learn," Dooher said. "We take every student who comes to our door. We are not creating widgets."

The state's per-pupil average spending is $5,047, but it varies from district to district. And it can cost a district up to $20,000 for a single student with special needs. Those needs include disabilities and economic disadvantage.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said the state's changing demographics is driving the need for greater state investment in education.

"A growing number of students in our state are the kinds of kids who'll cost more and need more in order to become successful workers," said Greiling, a House education committee chairwoman.

"Those kids need to learn English, or they're not ready for school because their parents are working two, three jobs. It's going to take more early childhood programs, all-day kindergarten, to get these kids ready," she added.

Greiling said PS Minnesota's call for $1 billion more in state funding is accurate. She said she will propose a bill this legislative session that will overhaul the state's education funding formula.

"We are planning to significantly increase per-pupil funding," she said. "Because all districts, even if it has all perfect students ready to learn, still don't have enough funding because we haven't kept up with inflation. So we need to significantly increase that formula for all students."

There are many experts, locally and nationally, who believe that beyond basic spending levels, more money for education does not necessarily lead to better education.

"I want teachers to be paid well," said Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based conservative think tank.

"But I don't believe for a moment that absent other changes - strong standards, merit pay, real school choice - if we don't have reforms like that, and stronger families and kids working harder, spending an extra billion (dollars) will make no difference," he added.

When it comes to education spending, Minnesota ranks in the middle of the pack nationally. But the state's students place high in performance - eighth-graders rank second in math and eighth in reading.

National education finance expert Eric Hanushek said Minnesota's level of funding, coupled with high performance, proves that higher spending does not necessarily lead to better academic performance.

"On average, throughout the nation, districts that spend more are not much more likely to do well than districts that spend poorly," Hanushek said. "Wealthy suburban districts do well. Is it because of spending or because the parents care and spend more time on education? What's the value added of an extra dollar? That's where we don't find a very strong answer."

Hanushek, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning think tank at Stanford University, concedes Greiling's point that changing demographics create more challenges. But, he said, those problems aren't solved by providing all schools with more money.

Greiling said that increased funding proposed in her bill would be available to districts that can prove ongoing student improvement. Since this is not a state budget-setting year, Greiling does not expect action until 2009.

The goal, she said, is to create a statewide discussion on the true costs of education.

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