During a time of nationwide debate over the state of education in America, the Minnesota State Legislature took decisive action last week by passing two education bills that will affect students from kindergarten to college. The Republican-backed bills are components of a larger fiscal agenda to combat a projected $5 billion budget deficit in the upcoming years.
Sponsored by state senator Gen Olson, the K-12 bill will freeze pay for public school employees and funding for special education, and also re-appropriate funds that have previously been designated for integration programs in urban districts. The redirected funds will be withheld as incentives – districts that show improvement in student literacy will receive more state money and teachers’ pay increases will be tied to their performance.
One of the major issues confronting Minnesota’s schools is the racial achievement gap. Members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) who oppose the bill claim that cutting funding for integration programs will undo desegregation efforts and unfairly penalize minorities and poor students. Those who support the bill cite the little success that the integration programs have shown in the past and argue that the $64 million set aside for 2011 would be better spent elsewhere. Furthermore, per pupil payments to school districts will increase by $100 over the next two years.
As the Adolescent Literacy Coordinator at Project for Pride In Living based in the metro area, Carleton alum Mari Jo Long ’09 expressed her concern that the schools serving minority students, those that most need extra resources, will not be able to access them as a result of the education bill. By withholding state money as incentives, Long said, “schools will now focus their attention on drawing students who have historically scored well on literacy assessments, leaving minority students to find a different school.” She believes this will ultimately exacerbate the achievement gap and predicts, “many schools may improve their average test scores, but it will be because of a change in student population, rather than a superior literacy curriculum.”
Although Carleton College, along with other MIAC schools, will remain unaffected, the higher education bill will significantly cut state funds for the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). Both systems will be subject to double-digit percentage cuts in state spending and forced to limit tuition increases.
The Senate’s version of the bill would cut the University of Minnesota’s budget by 19% and that of MnSCU’s by 13%, while the draft passed by the House of Representatives cuts funding for both systems by 13%. The actual figures of the funding cuts vary by the source: legislators predict a total of $300 million between the two systems, while the administrators at the University of Minnesota alone forecast a loss of $243 million.
Furthermore, tuition increases will be capped at 2% for community colleges and 4% for the state universities. In order to cope with the significantly downsized budgets, administrators said that bigger class sizes, fewer course offerings and layoff of staff members would be inevitable.
The Democratic governor Mark Dayton still has to sign both pieces of legislation into law. In February, the governor announced a framework for $171 million reduction in higher education spending as part of his budget deficit plan which would revert state spending for the university systems to 2002-2003 levels, not adjusting for inflation. Even so, his proposal poses a less severe loss for the public universities. DFLers who voted against the House and Senate education bills have promised that Governor Dayton will not approve the bills as they are. Government spending cuts on education are certain at this point – what remains to be seen is how a compromise may be found in saving the state from fiscal crisis while preserving the quality of education in Minnesota.