More education money needed already?

Less than a year ago, Minnesota legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz approved a $1.1 billion increase in school funding and gave the K-12 funding formula its biggest increase in 15 years. The current base spending level now totals more than $20.5 billion.

Yet despite this historic spending hike — which Gov. Walz calls attention to on his website — the Senate education bill is being attacked by DFL legislators and the state’s teachers’ union for not including any significant new spending. The Senate proposal instead focuses on boosting reading proficiency scores.

Apparently, billions of dollars more are already needed right now or Minnesota schools will collapse.

“What on earth is going on in the state’s schools that a 15-year-high funding increase didn’t touch the sides?” asks my colleague John Phelan.

“How can it be that dumping those hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s schools in 2021 made so little difference that they will soon be in dire straits unless we now dump in a few extra billion? And how do we know that these further billions will do the trick when vast infusions of cash have, apparently, had no impact before?”

And what about the COVID-19 funds? Minnesota divvied out nearly $2.2 billion of federal relief funds to schools as of September 2021. Despite being one-time allocations, haven’t those dollars been able to help at all?

A new report by the Association of School Business Officials asked 154 districts across 35 states about their federal aid spending. As of Jan. 31, 2022, a majority of those surveyed have spent most of the first chunk of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which primarily went toward PPE, cleaning and sanitation supplies, digital devices, and student broadband. Those funds must be obligated by September 2022.

Fewer surveyed districts have expended the federal ESSER II and ESSER III funds, which can be spent on students’ social, emotional, and mental health and academic needs. Districts have to obligate those funds by September 2023 and September 2024. Minnesota received around $542 million in ESSER II funds and about $1.2 billion in ESSER III funds to distribute to schools.

Given Minnesota’s past struggles with spending accountability, we need to ensure the current spending increases actually get to the students. Otherwise, Minnesota will continue to be a high-spending state that can’t make meaningful progress on closing its achievement gap and advancing student learning.