In Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average, and that’s pretty much the Minnesota motto for everything. We have above average biking cities, above average hipster neighborhoods, and above average funding for public education. Oops — scratch education off the list. NPR’s School Money series just popped that civic pride balloon.
Two eye-opening overviews opened the School Money series this month, looking at why America’s schools have a money problem and whether more money can fix what’s wrong with schools. Several other articles focus on specific state stories, and links and interactive maps help to find Minnesota-specific information.
First, public school funding comes from three sources: state, federal and local taxes. Federal funding is the smallest pot of money — on average about ten percent. On average, state and local funding split the other 90 percent. In Minnesota, according to the MN Department of Education, the state share of school funding in 2015 was 65 percent, the local share was 28 percent, and the federal share was 7 percent. Since 2003, the state share fell from 75 percent to 65 percent and the local share increased from 19 percent to 28 percent.
Neither school funding nor school needs are equal across districts. Some schools have higher populations of high-need students, students living in poverty, students with learning disabilities, new immigrants learning English. Some schools have higher transportation costs, with small numbers of students needing to be bused over large distances.
The local share of school funding comes from property taxes. That gives an advantage to wealthier school districts. As NPR describes it:
“It’s a double whammy for educators … who serve kids living in poverty: They often have less local money to work with but higher costs than other, more affluent districts. Kids can’t check their poverty at the classroom door.”
Public funding is not the only factor in funding schools. Wealthier families can pay for extra-curricular activities as well as contributing to school or classroom fund drives. That gives schools with wealthier families a distinct advantage.
Overall, Minnesota school spending is just about at the national average. According to the NPR article, the average for Minnesota is $11,858 per student, compared to a national average of $11,841.
Minneapolis and St. Paul districts spend somewhat more than the state average, with Minneapolis coming in at $13,976 per student and St. Paul at $13,525. They also have high percentages of children living in poverty.
I’m not sure which district has the highest per-pupil spending, but many rural districts have very high rates. Herman-Norcross, for example, spends $18,947 per student and Wadena-Deer Creek spends $15,971. On the other hand, some districts are very low — St. Michael-Albertville spends only $7,511 per student. (All figures come from the interactive map on the NPR story.)
Some argue that spending doesn’t matter.
“Money isn’t pixie dust,” declared the Texas assistant solicitor general, arguing his state’s side of a school funding lawsuit before the Texas Supreme Court. “Funding is no guarantee of better student outcomes.”
Money isn’t magic, but starving schools guarantees that they will get worse. NPR’s second article weighs studies and arguments and concluded that increased funding, sustained over the long term, helps poor students as shown by increasing test scores, increasing graduation rates, and increasing adult earning levels.
In Minnesota, one of the places money could make a difference is in paying for school counselors. We still rank near the very bottom in student-counselor ratios, with 743 students for every counselor, triple the recommended ratio. Only Arizona and California do worse. MPR reports that:
“Unlike most states, Minnesota has no minimum staffing requirements for school counselors or for any other student support positions — nurses, psychologists, chemical dependency counselors or social workers.”
Last year, the Minnesota Senate passed a proposal that would have increased funding for school counselors. The House didn’t pass the bill. This year, DFL Senator Susan Kent’s Student Support Services Personnel Act was included in the Senate’s omnibus education bill, but House Republicans remain hostile to the proposal. They want no new spending on education this year, despite the $900 million budget surplus.
In Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average. Maybe their schools run on pixie dust.