Stepping up after a (Short) Fall: Addressing Budgetary Gaps in Minnesota State Education Spending

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Stepping up after a (Short) Fall: Addressing Budgetary Gaps in Minnesota State Education Spending

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Part Two: More money, more reforms?

To meet the rising costs, the state legislature will need to increase its funding for both general and special education regardless of whether reforms can successfully decrease expenses. Even in the face of burgeoning costs, some still oppose sufficient funding increases (Magan, “Do Minnesota schools need more money or reforms?”). Republicans in the legislature have charged that past increases in funding have not closed the racial achievement gap, which is the difference in educational attainment between white students and people of color. Instead of significant funding increases, they advocate for various reform measures ranging from the expansion of school voucher programs to adjusting the criteria that must be met for staff cuts to take place. This outlook correctly diagnoses that increased funding cannot be the sole solution to the racial achievement gap; however, that does not negate the necessity of increased funding. Likewise for the implementation of reforms designed to cut costs and close the achievement gap, even if they are effective. One reason is that it is unreasonable to believe that increases in funding should have closed the gap. It was noted that it was not until recently that educational funding levels were on par with their pre-Great Recession levels, and they have yet to exceed the previous thirty-year high of 10.64 billion dollars in 2006 (Magan, “Minnesota schools are getting $483M”). The lack of progress could be attributed to the lack of consistently higher levels of funding rather than the failure of past increases that have only put spending on par with its past. Additionally, even if the net-benefit calculus supported cutting staff to shrink deficits, that does little to address the question of how to match costs that rise on a near-annual basis. At some point, the savings generated by a given reform will be outpaced by costs that consistently grow. This means that even if it is not sufficient to address the educational challenges faced by Minnesota, it is still vital to raise the amount of funding provided in the next education budget if the current levels of educational quality and outcomes are going to be maintained, let alone if other problems such as the racial achievement gap are going to be successfully addressed.

In addition to the various sources of rising costs detailed earlier, there are additional reasons justifying increases in education spending: inflation and educational quality. Notably, no part of the funding calculations in Minnesota is inflation adjusted. Because of inflation, the same amount of funds may buy fewer resources from one year to the next. Analysis conducted by the North Star Policy Institute finds that, after accounting for inflation, the per pupil amount of funding has actually been consistently decreasing since 2016 (Wychen). In fairness, the analysis fails to describe how inflation is being calculated, but even if it uses an inflation index like the Consumer Price Index (CPI) that is tied primarily to basic consumer goods such as bread and gasoline rather than the most common costs faced by school districts, there would seem to be a ripple effect from inflation in basic goods to other costs such as wages faced by schools. For example, an increase in the cost of goods means increased demand for higher wages. Still, any alteration to the funding calculation whose purpose is to correct for inflation should evaluate price changes for the goods most often bought by school districts. This is explained in an article published by Bruce Baker, Associate Professor in the Rutgers Graduate School of Education:

[…] the consumer price index is relatively unhelpful (okay, useless) for comparing current education spending to past education spending, unless we are considering how many loaves of bread or gallons of gas can be purchased with the education dollar. If we wanted to maintain constant quality education over time, the main thing we’d have to do is maintain a constant quality workforce in schools – mainly a teacher workforce, but also administrators, etc. At the very least, if quality lagged behind we’d have to be able to offset the quality losses with additional workers, but the trade-offs are hard to estimate.

 

Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of academic study on the direct impact of inflation on education quality, but generalizations can be made using an analysis of educational spending in general on quality. An empirical analysis conducted by researchers at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research concludes that increased resources should improve student achievement and may contribute to successfully closing wealth-based education inequities (Jackson et al.). Since additional resource access improves student outcomes, it stands to reason that decreased resource access due to inflation would damage those outcomes.  Accounting for inflation when allocating funding would thus prevent educational quality from slowly degrading with time and reduce the magnitude and frequency of future deficits.

The recent history of Minnesota’s education funding is fraught with political clashes that have so far ended the same way every time: with many school districts left to dry as they face growing costs while the legislature repeats the mantra that Minnesota needs reform and innovation, not increased spending. This outlook damages the education system that is the foundation of developing an active citizenry capable of effective governance. It seems that the most important reform, then, would be for people to reform their own beliefs about the role of government funds in supporting a high-quality education system.

 

Return in the future for additional coverage of education funding in Minnesota, especially how it might impact us here at Apple Valley High School.

 

Sources available here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1I9UVG33wZLjysfpGzrTgNzYk88xhgJ8LB-03X1k0hWI/edit?usp=sharing

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