Allergic to Accountability: Minnesota’s public schools have little to show for decades of increased spending

Minnesotans take pride in their public schools. They read state rankings like those published by Education Week and U.S. News & World Report and see Minnesota’s education system ranked near the top. But hidden beneath our seemingly high rankings are educational disparities and shortcomings that have not disappeared despite decades of increased spending. Billions of dollars—and 41 percent of the state’s budget—continue to get dedicated to education funding; unfortunately, Minnesota taxpayers have little to show for their investment.

The state measures student academic achievement primarily through the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). Minnesota student achievement is also measured by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On both sets of tests, Minnesota students’ scores in reading and mathematics are stagnant or in decline, and an achievement gap between students of color and their white peers and students from low-income families and their wealthier peers persists.

While test scores are not the only indicator of success, they play a key role in evaluating learning because they are objective, standardized measures of student achievement on academic or proficiency standards. Test score performance is also often used to argue in favor of increased spending.

But Minnesota is a high-spending state relative to spending across the country, and yet other states that spend far less per pupil have helped their students of color achieve better academic performance. For example, black and Hispanic students in Mississippi, a state that spends thousands of dollars less per student compared to Minnesota, outperformed Minnesota black and Hispanic students in both math and reading. Equally important, Mississippi black student test scores have been scaling up over the years, compared to Minnesota black students’ declining scores.

What about graduation rates? Minnesota state leaders have highlighted increased graduation rate data as “promising,” but such increases do not automatically equate to success or mean that students are being set up for success. In fact, college readiness data show zero progress in closing academic gaps in terms of actual learning. We may be graduating more students, but an increasing proportion of those students are unprepared for college and other post-secondary options.

The all-too-familiar trend of mediocre performance and declining test scores paired with a persistent achievement gap is unacceptable, and continuing to pour more money into a broken system and hoping for different results is bad policy. Until we pursue solutions outside of the education “reforms” that have been tried ad nauseam, our education system will not get the lasting change it needs, and all our students will not get the education they deserve. It is far time to hold the state accountable and ask, “Where are the results of all our spending?”