Rep. Ray Cox is proving that old adage that a little information is a dangerous thing. In a recent blog he shares data from the State Auditor’s School Finance Report. He makes it sound as though things in Minnesota Schools are going along swimmingly except for the fact that across the state there are almost 12,000 fewer students enrolled. The decline in student enrollment has been predicted for some time. It is a result of the ‘baby boom’ bulge moving through the age groups. Most of the children of the baby boomers have now graduated. Ray is right in saying that declining enrollments hurt school budgets, but so does stingy investment from state government. Northfield’s student enrollment has had a tiny increase in spite of competition from Charter schools.
Form his reading of the Auditor’s report Rep. Cox makes the statement, “Teacher salaries went up 13.6% in districts over 1,000 students and 11.2% for all school districts and charter schools. During this same time period the benefits paid teachers as a percent of salary steadily increased, reaching 28% in 2004.” Rep. Cox fails to mention as the report does that inflation for this time period has increased 13.8% and an average teachers salary increased only 11.2% so over the time period teachers have seen a decline in earnings of -3.1%, while the cost to the district of benefits has increased by 12.4%. His read of the information implies that schools get enough money and teachers are generously compensated. To his credit Rep. Cox does mention the increasing cost of healthcare insurance as a major expenditure issue, though the Auditor’s report does not spell this out it does point out that the cost of benefits far out paces the cost of salaries. Rep. Cox did not read the report carefully and neglects to mention some of the pressures placed on school districts through Federal and State mandates in a time of declining enrollment and flat revenue increases. As a former School Board member I would expect greater understanding and a better reading of this data from Rep. Cox. It makes me wonder what purpose does it serve to argue that things are just fine when they are not.
Some things the report mentions but does not analyze or explain are increases in minority and low-income students across the state, increases in special education spending, and class size (teacher/student ratio). The reason these are important is that under the mandates of NCLB it costs more to educate minority and low-income students. I in no way mean to suggest that we should not spend what it takes to do the right thing by these students but neither the State nor the Federal governments will admit this fact. The fact is that when one increases the cost of education without increasing revenues it forces districts to prioritize. The priorities get lost in averages and percents. Class sizes in some classes and subjects go up a great deal while others remain small to better serve those high risk populations (the law requires it) and the average makes it look as though schools are in good shape on paper.
To study the Auditor’s Report yourself click here.