Senate GOP education plan falls short in helping rural Minnesota

By Ken Martin, chairman, Minnesota DFL

Senate Republicans recently announced their major education proposal of the year, claiming that their plan is designed to help rural school districts catch up to suburban neighbors. Make no mistake: this bill was designed to put talking points first, and responsible policy second. It may appear to be a great idea at the outset, but the flat increase proposed by Senate GOP members does a disservice to the students that most need our support.

It’s true that additional money is needed in Minnesota school districts, and if it took political convenience to finally persuade the Senate Republican caucus of this fact, then that’s at least some progress. The problem is that by giving every district the same per-pupil increase, this plan actually helps most rural districts comparatively less. Many schools need additional money for special education costs, expenses related to growing diversity, and especially high transportation costs in rural communities. On top of all that, drawing away from the formula means that fewer dollars will be allocated to early childhood family education (ECFE) programs across the state. In light of recent DFL investments in all-day kindergarten and other initiatives designed to help our youngest Minnesotans, this seems particularly irresponsible.

Our districts, some of the best in the entire country, are not simple, and our funding formulas reflect that. Simply tossing the same amount of money at each student is not a smart investment: Minnesotans understand that special education is expensive, that transportation in rural areas costs more, that teaching new immigrants how to communicate in English requires targeted funding. How surprising, then, that Senate Republicans are just throwing money at the problem after years of characterizing careful Democratic investments as doing the same. All our schools, especially our schools in Greater Minnesota, need an increase on the formula, not a flat, untargeted increase across the board.

This plan has few specifics, but one thing is clear: it does not help rural districts the way Republican talking points claim. By ignoring Minnesota’s carefully constructed education funding formulas, the proposal continues a shameful history of funding students in need at lower levels than those who enter school ahead of their peers. To say that this is an investment that primarily benefits rural Minnesota is dishonest. While every school might get something, the schools that would most benefit from this plan are our state’s largest, most well-off and least diverse districts. Just as we are beginning to see our achievement gap decrease, investing comparatively more resources into our least diverse schools threatens what progress we’ve made in the past few years.

The Republican proposal stands in stark contrast to DFL priorities, which are aimed at boosting the prospects of low and middle-income Minnesotans in both urban and rural parts of the state. Previous DFL investments in the funding formula, all-day kindergarten and location equity help all students and ongoing efforts for school breakfasts and acquiring money to patch up aging school facilities reflect a sustained commitment to a school system still recovering after years of financial mismanagement. Now is not the time to change course; we need a strong, smart investment in our schools that continues to honor the complexity and value of our students. Simplistic talking points and politically-motivated policies are not what Minnesota students need to succeed.