July 22, 2009
“We don’t have the money to do school funding reform,” goes conventional wisdom around the Capitol. It costs money to fix the funding formula and money is in very short supply.
Given the state’s fiscal condition, many considered any reform of school funding impossible. But in our Senate District schools simply can’t wait.
Last spring Representative Chris Danou and I introduced the Rural Schools Initiative. Our initiative bit off a piece of the School Finance Network’s school funding reforms. Our plan focused on addressing needs of rural school districts and those with declining enrollment.
We laid out three steps the Legislature could take: soften the loss of state aid resulting from enrollment decreases by spreading the impact over two years; provide targeted assistance to small but necessary schools through Sparsity Aid and provide additional support for districts transporting students 12 miles or more.
Shortly after we announced our plan, news of the state’s worsening financial problems sent the Governor and Legislative leaders huddling to figure out how to deal with the deficit. The result was even deeper state funding cuts to every aspect of state government.
Among other cuts, they proposed a $147 million reduction in general aid to schools as well as decreases in every single ‘category’ or special school funded program, including Sparsity Aid.
There was a great deal of discussion on how to apply the new funding cuts. In the Senate, our leader said everyone must be cut the same – a bit over 3% – which would come on top of any other funding decrease a school district might have due to changes in enrollment or property values. His proposal significantly penalized nearly every school district in our Senate District. I argued for finding a way to make the cut fair for everyone.
To help diminish the impact of the deepening budget crisis on small rural schools struggling to survive, I successfully argued for increasing Sparsity Aid. In the second year of the budget, Sparsity Aid will be fully funded at a total of $14.9 million. Almost one quarter of schools in the state will receive this aid – ten schools in our Senate District will share about one and a half million dollars.
I also advocated for relief to schools with severe declining enrollment. And to buffer the impact on property taxes, I supported increased funding for the First Dollar Tax Credit, a program that puts state money into property tax relief for home owners, by $145 million. These provisions were also included in the final budget.
Funding for public education is the largest commitment of state taxpayer dollars to any governmental program. In 2008-09, school funding made up nearly 40% of the state’s total general fund budget. And yet our local schools are struggling.
Adopting part of the Rural Schools Initiative will help schools across the state survive but we must take further steps toward more comprehensive school funding reform.
As one man from Pepin said, “We have got to start somewhere and we have got to start right now.”