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Education leaders say funds from Minnesota fall short

A majority of Minnesota school superintendents believe the state's education funding falls short, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Twin Cities-based progressive think tank Minnesota 2020.

More than 170 superintendents recently filled out an anonymous questionnaire on state funding. About 97 percent denounced the state's current approach to financing education, and some 60 percent stated that the level of state funding hurts the quality of education in the state.

"This is the most major survey that's been done in the last 10 years that I am aware of superintendents in the state," Matt Entenza, Minnesota 2020 founder and former state DFL House leader, said in a phone conference with reporters. "They think this is a dire situation and the education funding system is a failure."

Critics of the report charged that it gives little credit to the state's efforts to provide adequate education funds - and little in the way of solutions to the issues it highlights.

In December, Minnesota 2020 enlisted the Minnesota Association of School Administrators to send letters to the 321 superintendents on its mailing list. The letters directed recipients to an online questionnaire. About 55 percent of superintendents, most of them at the helm of rural school districts, logged on to complete the study, which is not a scientific survey.

About 85 percent of respondents said their districts rely on an operating levy on property owners to supplement state funding. Of respondents in districts without an operating levy, 35 percent said they'll ask voters to approve one in the next three years. In districts where voters turned down a levy last November, an average of seven teachers will lose their jobs this year, superintendents said.

"I think these numbers are huge," said Minnesota 2020 education fellow John Fitzgerald, adding that the levy referendums bitterly divide communities and make for an unreliable income source. "Schools absolutely cannot survive on what the state pays them."

The report faults Gov. Tim Pawlenty for failing a 2001 commitment by Minnesota lawmakers that the state would foot most of the K-12 education bill. Under his watch, the report says, the average per-student operating levy has ballooned from about $350 in 2001 to almost $800 in 2006.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren dismissed the report in a statement. She pointed out that Minnesota covers nearly 80 percent of K-12 education expenses, among the largest state contributions in the nation. She also noted that operating levies ensure local control over education resources.

"Increasing education spending, or for that matter, another report on education spending, isn't the key to improving student achievement in Minnesota," Seagren said. "Instead of just focusing on how much is spent on education, Minnesota needs to do more to figure out how to better utilize the state's current $14 billion investment in education."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529