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Minnesota shutdown: how the resolution may affect schools

August 8, 2011

Hang on tight(er), Minnesota educators.

Though Minnesota school districts are already experiencing significant financial struggles due to the 2010 Legislative Session’s decision to delay $1.4 billion in state payments, they’ll be asked to find even more creative budgetary solutions after the recent shutdown-halting compromise by the Legislature and Governor Mark Dayton.  The new K-12 education budget bill will extend the current spending shift into the future (no repayment plan is outlined, only promises to allocate funds when the state reaches contingent budget surpluses), plus add in $772 million in new shifts.  In doing so, Minnesota has spread their biennial school-funding formula into a thus-unexplored—and tenuous—shape.

“Minnesota has never shifted more than 20 percent of school aid payments until last biennium when we made it 70/30 due to [former Governor Tim] Pawlenty,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling in an interview with The Center for School Change’s Joe Nathan.  “Now to go to 60/40 is unheard of and terribly dangerous in terms of schools ever being paid back.  If they are, it could be decades. Only one other state in the country exercises this practice: California, not a state we should value for its fiscal integrity.”

In addition to aid shifts, the Legislature saved further costs by selectively trimming state education institutions: the Department of Education and popular Perpich Center for Arts Education, for example, were each cut by five percent.  Other programs, like state aid toward racial integration (which many, including Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, deemed essential toward Minnesota’s achievement gap-closing efforts), charter school start-up grants, and metropolitan magnet school grants were eliminated outright.

Seeming to account for the imminent dire fiscal reality, legislators saw to include policy tweaks that would lighten districts’ obligated expenditures.  The state requirement that districts spend two percent of their revenue on staff development, for instance, was suspended.  Also, schools will no longer be required to set aside a portion of their Safe Schools Levies to pay for school counselors and/or other behavior-intervention professionals.

In light of the programs being cut, though, it’s difficult to see how such operational mercies will help Minnesota deal with (1) narrowing its racial achievement gap, (2) addressing the rising national concerns around maintaining safe schools, and (3) building onto its history as a school-choice pioneer.

Cutting through the cuts, shifts, and compensatory measures, then, is the bill’s lone significant (and likely costly) expansion: a new requirement that schools construct and implement performance-based evaluation processes for teachers and principals.

However tempting it may be for school leaders in Minnesota to save costs by taking advantage of professional development requirement suspensions, the recommendation here—especially in light of how their personnel will be formally evaluated—is that they attach a premium to such funds, working to preserve professional development however possible.  As the new evaluation process will assign 35% of teachers’ overall effectiveness to results on several student success indices (including, in addition to test scores, student engagement and commitment), it is crucial for Minnesota’s education administrators to support instructional staff.  Even if budgets won’t allow teams of consultants and teacher coaches fly into schools, Minnesota administrators should nonetheless commit to finding creative ways to produce high-quality professional development around improving effectiveness.  One way to address the issue is to build capacity from within: appointing strategic faculty task teams and using professional-development monies for sub days to cover team meetings, for example, or sending selected faculty to relevant conferences in order for them to later train the larger body.


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