In far too many Minnesota school districts educational programs and teaching staffs are being gutted. Almost 100 school districts conducted operating levy referendums last year, with many failing because residents couldn't stand an increased burden on their property taxes.
Our troubled education system was the topic of the Minnesota House K-12 Education Finance Committee's meeting in Brainerd last week. The most appealing aspect of H.F. 4178, which was outlined by the committee's chair, Rep. Mindy Greiling, was the proposed shift of funding from operating levy referendum (funded by property taxes) to the general education revenue. The Roseville DFLer's bill would reduce each school district's operating levy referendum by $500 per pupil and add that amount to each district's general education revenue.
The school funding crisis is not a case of educators' distaste for tightening their belts for a one-time problem. The education cuts have been frequent and persistent. In the last six years the Brainerd School District has lost 20 percent of its staff, including 95 teachers. During that same period the Crosby-Ironton School District went from 49.5 teachers in seventh-12th grade to 29.5 teachers.
Education is the responsibility of the state. It says so in the Minnesota constitution. Article XIII, Section 1 reads: "Uniform system of public schools. The stability of republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state."
Notice the use the word "uniform" in the constitution. That means the quality of education should be the same whether a child lives in Eden Prairie or Pillager. The state's general revenue fund, generated primarily by the state income tax, is the best source of education funding because it takes into account a person's ability to pay. A student's education should not depend on whether the taxpayers in a particular district which can afford to increase its property taxes.
The property tax system should be a last resort for funding or a source local voters can tap for extra educational amenities. Property taxes don't take into account one's ability to pay and can impose an unfair burden on the residents.
Restructuring of the education funding should be a top priority for the 2009 Legislature.
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