What happens if a family in one community pays $3.50 for a gallon of milk while another family in a neighboring community pays $10.50? What if the family pays three times as much for most of their everyday necessities? Obviously, the quality of life for that family is greatly diminished. This scenario plays out today in schools all across Minnesota.
Back in the 1980s, many school districts struggled to provide a quality education for their students. The state funding per student was inadequate, and schools were forced to rely on voter-approved school levies just to provide the very basics. Because the taxpayer cost per levy dollar was based on the individual property wealth of a school district, those districts with significant commercial or industrial development held a distinct advantage. The larger tax base lowered the cost for all. Taxpayers in districts with mostly residential development paid two or three times as much for each levy dollar, and were unable to support sufficient levy revenue for their schools.
As a result, Minnesota’s education system became one of “haves” and “have-nots,” with the quality of a child’s education dependent mainly upon their zip code.
Educators accused the Legislature of not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “general and uniform” system of public schools. In the resulting 1991 lawsuit, the appellate court agreed that reform was needed when differences in school funding were based merely on the property wealth of each school district.
The Legislature responded with several measures to reduce the disparities. One major change was the adoption of equalization, which is a match of state aid to make the cost of a levy dollar uniform across the state. Over the next several years, the funding disparity between school districts in the top 5 percent and the lowest 5 percent shrunk from 35 percent to 19 percent. Unfortunately, the funding disparity has crept back up to 31 percent, mostly because the erosion of equalization has resulted in less levy revenue in low property wealth districts.
Because the State Legislature hasn’t adjusted equalization since 1993, residents in some communities once again pay two or three time more for each levy dollar.
For example, the state allows districts to have school levies up to $1,633 per pupil, and many do. The annual cost to a taxpayer per $100,000 of property value in a high property wealth school district for this levy amount is $151, while for residents and small business owners in a lower property wealth district the cost escalates to over $450.
The time is now to bring greater equity to our schools. Students today won’t just compete against students in the next town or next state, they will compete against the entire world. All students must have equal access to a high quality education regardless of where they live in Minnesota. Many legislators recognize the need to make school levies more affordable in low property wealth districts. Contact your legislators today to say that increasing equalization must be part of the final budget agreement.
By Todd Anderson, President of Schools for Equity in Education (SEE), an association of 62 Minnesota School Districts that works to advocate for equity and adequacy in K-12 education funding and policy. Waconia Public Schools is a member of SEE and Waconia School Board member Cathy Thom is on the SEE Board of Directors.