School funding must be fair and equitable

Published 3:31 pm Saturday, March 20, 2010

As a teacher and a parent, the health of our schools has always been a top concern for me. Over the years, it has become more and more clear that our state system of funding education has some serious shortcomings. As I looked deeper, I found there is a real disparity across our state on how much state aid schools receive. While not intentional, our school funding mechanism has become a system of “haves” and “have-nots.” It seems wealthier districts continue to fare well, while lower-income districts, especially in rural Minnesota, continue to struggle. This issue compelled me to run for state office, and now that I’m here, school funding remains a top priority for me. While many have talked about the importance of statewide equity for years, this year, I’ve introduced a bill that turns this talk into action.

In the United States, public education is the legal responsibility of state government. In Minnesota, funds are provided to operate public elementary and secondary schools through the school finance system. The bulk of state support is distributed through the general education revenue program, which provides money for the current operating expenditures of the districts.

The remaining portion of the state’s appropriation to local districts is provided through special purpose or categorical aids, such as special education aid and property tax relief aids. In all, there are 25 different categories. While many of the categories have merit, the formula has become a patchwork over time. It is clear we need to prioritize, simplify and bring more fairness to the system.

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For example, there are some mechanisms built into our current state funding formula that trigger inequities. Compensatory revenue, based on each school’s count of students that are eligible for free or reduced lunches, is calculated on a concentrated formula. The Albert Lea school district does not fare well under this formula, just one example of how our system must be reformed to provide a fairer revenue stream to schools.

The system I’m proposing would be a foundation aid program based on the number of students attending school in each district and the overall costs per pupil. It would also include a new method to allocate property tax proceeds and state aid among the school districts more equally.

In simple terms, our education funding system is based largely on a “per pupil” formula. Students are weighted anywhere from .621 for kindergarten students, 1.115 for students grades 1-3, 1.06 for grades 4-6 and 1.3 for students in grades 7 – 12. A pupil’s weight is increased by necessary special education or supplemental services that are required.

Under my proposal, every student would be rated the same — 1 pupil unit. If a student requires extra services, the weighting would be increased and the district will receive more funding. I believe this is a more accurate representation of what it costs to educate students of every age, and will also help hold funding levels stable as larger or smaller classes move through the system.

The next change would be to determine the state and local cost to educate each student, based on a statewide spending average from the previous year. The formula sets a maximum district cost per pupil of 105 percent of the state cost per pupil.

Finally, to make sure school funding is equitable between property poor districts and property rich districts, the bill would use the taxable property located in the school district to set the state foundation aid level. A formula will be developed to determine how much a district will be allowed to levy for additional funding. Currently, districts with a lower tax base are left to fend for themselves, trying to pass one operating levy after another. This is not only an expensive process, it impacts the morale of the district. A student’s quality of education should never be determined by his or her zip code.

The proposal I am working on does not ask for any additional money at this point, just a better, fairer distribution formula that reflects our priorities. My bill establishes a uniform rate of property taxes, dedicated for public schools that will be supplemented by state aid. The net result is that every public school student will generate an equal amount of funding regardless of where they live. This bill provides property tax fairness and equitable funding for all public school districts based on the number and type of student they are serving.

Changing how we fund our schools will not be easy, and I understand it will not happen quickly. I am hoping to get an information hearing this session on my proposal. I have sought feedback from the Minnesota Rural Education Association and Schools for Equity in Education and would like to work with them and other educational organizations to refine the bill. I want an end result that is fair, clean and easy to understand. Above all, we need to move Minnesota toward a school funding formula that allows every student in every school in the state to experience the same excellence in education, and have the same chance for success.

As always, it is an honor to serve. Please continue to contact me with your questions and suggestions addressing our state budget shortfall. I can be reached at (651) 296-8216 or by e-mail at I look forward to hearing from you.

Robin Brown, DFL-Moscow Township, is the state representative for District 27A.