NEW ULM - Minnesota's state education funding system and its interaction with the Minnesota Legislature were the focus of discussion at the Hot Topics breakfast hosted Friday by the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce at the New Ulm Country Club.
Bob Meeks, executive director of Minnesota School Boards Association, led the presentation and discussed his work on the state Task Force on Education, which made recommendations this year on education funding reform.
He said Minnesota established a strong public school system and a mechanism for funding it in the 1970s with the "Minnesota Miracle." He said that system has since fallen into several problems due to constant tinkering with the system. He said the biggest cause of continual funding shortfalls in recent years, both for the state and the school system, is due to changes made during former Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration. He said they changed the system at the time to have the state take over funding previously generated across the state through property taxes. He said the changes were made and actually reduced property taxes across the state, but the Legislature and Ventura then failed to follow up with the funding measures needed for the changes work, such as broadening the sales tax to clothing.
"The Legislature took the candy [of reduced property taxes], but it didn't take its medicine," said Meeks.
Other items of focus during his presentation were the ongoing issues of Minnesota's achievement gap between whites and ethnic minorities and low-income students, which he called the worst in the nation, and the federal government's underfunding mandated special education programs, which he said is increasingly driving up the state's education costs.
Regarding the Legislature, he said the Minnesota School Boards Association focus is on funding legislation, though its has focused on a few other bills.
He said the group is interested in the push this session of all-day kindergarten and early education legislation. He said that early work with kids has been shown to improve their results throughout the rest of their school careers. He said his organization is concerned with the Legislature not prioritizing funding all-day kindergarten over early education. He said it could lead to gaps in place where kids would have full-day early education, then find themselves in half-day kindergarten that would make them lose all the early education gains.
He said his organization is also concerned with proposed legislation to effectively end the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of children. He said he is a strong supporter of helping of victims of abuse caused by teachers, but his concern is the original intent of helping victims could be lost among people seeking to abuse the legislation. He said that people who decide to make false claims of abuse are very difficult to win against, so the schools would likely seek a settlement. He said his concern is the misuse of the legislation could be extensive enough to prevent schools from being able to maintain control of their budget in the face of all the potential settlements.
Finally, Meeks said the best way to get action moving on the many issues facing Minnesota education is to start organizing locally and expressing goals as a group. He said the collective voice and strong petitioning to local legislators can be effective at achieving goals.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.