At a recent community meeting hosted by the Roseville School district, parents spoke out about the economic problems facing the schools their children attend. Class sizes are too large, budget cutbacks have removed teacher's aides from classrooms. Even funds for basic supplies are lacking.
Roseville is a typical case. Schools throughout Minnesota have eliminated many educational programs, laid off teachers, postponed building maintenance, and cut corners when purchasing supplies. Many teachers dig deep into their own pockets to provide school supplies for their classrooms and students.
Governor Pawlenty refuses to see this as a problem. He contends his budget provides adequate funding for schools. In fact, he claims that in the last budget cycle, the state provided "one of the largest boosts for schools in state history." Regardless of his rhetoric about big increases, the reality is that many schools were forced to lay off teachers under that budget.
PS Minnesota, a coalition of statewide education organizations and parents, hired some consultants to follow-up on and analyze a report issued two years ago by a Pawlenty task force on education funding. Based on their analysis of the Governor's task force report, the consultants estimated that the state needs to invest at least an additional $1 billion a year, above inflation, to adequately fund education, or almost $1.8 billion per year above inflation to meet the future standards of the federal "No Child Left Behind" law.
Governor Pawlenty ignored those findings and recently submitted a budget that would provide an amount slightly less than projected inflation. Nothing more. This from a Governor who has called education "our most important investment."
In contrast, legislators have proposed increases in education funding a bit more than inflation, though not close to the needed levels. But these proposals would rely on state income tax increases to pay the bills.
The Governor is trying to score political points by attacking the tax increases as totally unnecessary. He is even running radio ads on the issue, and is likely to succeed in stirring up opposition to the increases among many voters. After all, politicians of both parties have promised to cut taxes without affecting government services for years. They have convinced some people to believe you can get something for nothing.
The Governor expresses outrage at these tax proposals. But there are consequences for failing to raise the funds that schools need. The parents at the Roseville community meeting talked about their efforts to secure more funding for schools. They spend much of their volunteer time pushing local referenda to get funds, as well as organizing school carnivals and bake sales. School kids are asked to peddle magazines, candy and other products. Parents and kids collect boxtops, soup can labels, even used printer cartridges, just to earn money to help pay basic operating costs for schools.
Think about this. We expect parents and students to spend countless hours begging for money to keep their schools open while cutting corners on their educational quality. That's an outrage. And there are similar stories from other schools. Two years ago parents in Vadnais Heights were so desperate about the lack of funds for their local school that they raised money to hire an additional fourth grade teacher.
How do we best use the time and talents of parents willing to volunteer in our schools? I'd rather see them helping out in school classrooms than spending their time collecting soup labels and organizing fundraisers.
It hasn't always been this way. When I was a student, we weren't asked to sell products door-to-door to pay for our public schools. Yes, we had an occasional bake sale to raise money, but that wasn't to keep our school open, it was for a student council project to help build a school in Africa through UNICEF.
It has always been part of the American dream that parents want their kids to have better educational opportunities than they themselves had. We don't have to give up that dream. We shouldn't have to tell our children that we wish they could have the same opportunities we had, but that it is too expensive. Since 1999 there have been significant income tax cuts, at least for higher income Minnesotans. Governor Pawlenty is willing to accept higher property taxes and poorer schools as long as we can have lower income taxes. And that's the choice. If we want a world-class education for Minnesota students, we will need a bigger state investment. We won't get there if we expect our schools to rely on the possibility of higher property taxes and the funds that parents and students can raise from bake sales and boxtops.