Our children can’t wait

school busMore than 50 years ago, I went to public schools in rural Minnesota. My husband attended public school in Minneapolis. My children went to St. Paul public schools. Now my great-nieces and great-nephew are in St. Paul Public Schools. I have taught in public schools. So did my aunt and my great-aunt and my grandmother.

I say this to tell you that I know about public schools – their successes and their shortcomings. I believe in public education as a crucial part of our duty to our children, to our state, to citizenship itself.

Minnesota’s legislature is set to grossly underfund education. That’s a failure that affects every person in our state. For me, that failure hits very close to home.

My niece and nephew are among the strongest, smartest, kindest people I know. They are raising three beautiful children in St. Paul. My great-nieces and nephew go to public schools. It’s a choice, as their mother explained in a letter to legislators:

“I am a proud public school parent and, even though our income would allow my two daughters to attend a private school, we have chosen to remain in the public school system because exposing our children to diversity in many forms is important to us.  It is also important to us that our children remain together in the same school. Since my son has Down syndrome, he will not attend a private school because his education rights through IDEA are not guaranteed. “

My niece wrote to legislators because, once again, they are failing to fund schools at a level that is needed. This year, reports the Star Tribune:

“Dayton wants to spend an additional $711 million for preschool through grade 12 over the two years beginning July 1. Included in his proposal is a 2 percent per year increase in the state’s bedrock per-pupil funding formula.

“Bills approved in the past week by the House and Senate call for E-12 spending increases of about $270 million and $300 million, respectively, with per-pupil increases of 1.25 percent per year in the House proposal and 1.5 percent in the Senate’s.”

The House and Senate want an increase that is less than half of that sought by the governor. The per pupil increases are even lower than the rate of inflation. That is not enough for our children.

Our schools are already underfunded. They have already cut essential services and increased class sizes.

My niece describes kindergarten classes of 25-30 students. I have been a teacher. I know that this is just too large for kindergarten. As she writes,

“Kindergarten teachers are tasked with catching up the students who are behind, keeping students who are ahead challenged, and keeping the kids in the middle on track.  All the while promoting each child as their own individual and treating them as equals.  Even with all-day Kindergarten, there is not enough time in the day to reach everyone.”

Each year sees cuts to programs that should never be “extras” or expendable, including art, music, and technology classes. Counseling services, too, remain woefully underfunded and understaffed. For decades, Minnesota has ranked among the worst states for student-counselor ratios. In 2015, the Star Tribune editorialized:

“Minnesota schools remain severely understaffed, with one counselor for every 792 students. That means Minnesota’s public schools have fewer counselors per student than all but two other states, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The average student-to-counselor ratio nationally is about 450 to 1, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio.”

Special education also remains grossly underfunded. My nephew has Down syndrome. His public school education rights are guaranteed through IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requires that public schools provide him with an appropriate education. For the youngest children, like my nephew, that begins with an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). But the schools do not have resources in place. My niece writes:

“I have experienced first-hand the process of completing an IFSP.  The demand for special education services for one individual is high, but the resources to meet the demand are low.  It is not ok for the district to have to limit Physical Therapy for a 1 year old to 8 visits for the year when the demand is weekly.  A child with the physical potential to walk cannot be helped to learn to walk with 8 visits spread out throughout the year.  It is not ok for the district to have to limit Speech Therapy for a 1 year old to 8 visits for the year when the potential for talking and learning language is the greatest and needs constant attention.”

Minnesota’s budget surplus is projected to be $1.65 billion for the next two years. Republicans say they want to use the surplus for tax cuts to “put Minnesotans first.” The best way to put Minnesotans first is to take care of our children. If you agree on the importance of funding education for our children, for all of our children, then please contact the legislators on the conference committee.

Tell them in your own words that you want more, not less, funding for our students. Or email them a copy of this blog post. The conference committees are working on a final conference bill now. Time is running out.

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