There’s a myriad of intricacies when it comes to funding public schools in Minnesota, and State Rep. Bob Barrett (R-Lindstrom) said at a Feb. 19 forum at North Branch Area High School he’d like to see the funding formula simplified.
Reworking the formula, he noted, could lead to a fairer system of state funding for schools.
State Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) also attended the forum, noting he was there to learn more about school funding so he could “fight for (residents)” when important education bills get debated on the Capitol floor.
Layers of funding
Barrett said school funding in the state is very complex and it would take a group of experts to adequately explain how money is distributed to schools, but he touched on some of the major areas.
He explained the state starts out with a base-funding amount per student, which is $5,224.
That is where the equality among districts ends, though.
Barrett further explained per-pupil funding is different depending on the ages of students.
High school students are counted as 1.3 by the state when it comes to allocating money to districts.
Kindergarten students are counted as .62.
So if a school district has less older students, the funding is automatically less than a district a few towns over that might have the same amount of students, but of older age.
Next, Barrett talked about levy referendum revenue, referencing information he received from the State House research department and Schools for Equity in Education.
If a person lives in a “poor” county, he or she could pay hundreds of dollars more in taxes than someone who resides in a more affluent area.
For example, Barrett said, the annual taxpayer cost of a $1,633 per-pupil school levy for a person living in a home valued at $100,000 would very greatly over cities.
In Minnetonka, that person could see the school district portion of their property tax bill increase by $196.
In Chisago Lakes, the increase could be $364.
In North Branch, residents could see about a $415 increase.
The taxpayer-funded school district levies are less in places with larger tax bases—areas usually comprised of a good mix of commercial/industrial properties and residential homes.
Barrett also mentioned schools get different amounts of funding for the number of students on free and reduced lunch, the population of special education students and an array of other factors.
He noted enrollment also plays a big factor because state funding is based on the amount of students in districts, and this has adversely affected North Branch in recent years.
In 2007, there were about 3,800 students enrolled in District #138.
Now there are less than 3,200.
Barrett said he’d like to focus on poor school districts, noting North Branch would be considered as such, not in terms of student achievement, but in terms of how much state funding the district is receiving compared other schools in more affluent communities.
Barrett noted he’s introducing a bill that would “create a floor,” and if his legislation passes, districts that are below the funding floor would be raised up so they’re closer to average.
He proposes doing this without raising taxes.
Barrett said he’d like to use integration aid money to accomplish that goal.
He explained integration aid has been used in an attempt to narrow the achievement gap between Caucasian and minority students.
“The office of the legislative auditor, back a few years ago, at the request of the legislature, was asked to give an opinion on this particular type of funding and how effective it was, he said. “He gave a less-than-stellar review of the funding.”
He added, “White folks or kids of means have better education outcomes than poor kids or minority students. The gap is huge. In fact, we have the largest gap in the entire country, absent Washington D.C.”
Barrett noted he serves on the Education Policy Committee, and that committee is currently looking at ways to better use integration aid.
He said that effort has bipartisan support.
Criticisms of proposed legislation
Some members of the audience at the forum questioned the feasibility of Barrett’s proposed legislation.
They said it would be difficult to do without raising taxes.
Barrett did acknowledge that point, saying government usually “isn’t good” about taking money from one area and using it in another, which would be the case if his “funding floor” legislation passes.
Paul Gammel, a Fish Lake Township resident who ran against Johnson during the last election, said if the Legislature was willing to tax those in the top 2 percent of the income bracket, schools would have more money with which to work.
“There needs to be a fair tax system in Minnesota before funding for schools can be fair,” he said.
He also criticized the 2011 decision by the Legislature to repeal a mandate that required school districts to allocate 2 percent of their budgets to staff development.
Barrett responded the decision allows school districts more flexibility in budgeting.
“If we’re not keeping the teachers up to date, then our kids are really falling behind,” Gammel said.