Passing the Education Buck

Everybody's behind the Minneapolis schools referendum this year--including local business interests that opposed it last time. Why? Because their taxes will go down, while those of most homeowners will go up.

          And it's not just the no-new-taxes crowd that is skeptical. An increasing number of people, acknowledges School Board Chairman Bill Green, "especially in the African-American community," are growing resentful of a system they see as failing the kids. It's not a view championed by most of officialdom. But it's there nonetheless.

          "Looking at it objectively, kids aren't any better off today than they were before the referendum," says Earl Cooley, who retired earlier this year as a Minneapolis school counselor. "We're dealing with two serious extremes in the public schools. There's a high top and a very low bottom. And the people at the high end [Minneapolis's National Merit scholars and so on] are making those at the bottom look fairly decent. But the truth is, a lot of Johnnys still can't read. I question how much of the changes in schools have been promotional gimmicks.

          Then you have a consortium that's running the schools, that's making almost half a million a year. And so you seriously wonder whether this referendum is really about kids."

          Janet Kujak has been asking her own questions about the referendum. She knows it won't get her a raise, new books, or money for pumpkins, toys, pictures, treats. The money is dedicated strictly to class-size reduction, the only issue district officials believe they can sell to a skeptical public. They even gave up on a proposal for a "technology referendum" to put computers in the schools.

          So even if the levy passes, Kujak will continue to buy pretty much everything in her classroom except the tables, chairs, and official curriculum materials. Northstar can't count on PTA members opening their wallets and peddling cookie dough in the office. Ninety percent of the students here are on free or reduced-price lunches, the second-highest percentage of any city school. If the school is lucky, it will get to keep the health clinic just opened this year, and to spruce up its forbidding exterior. If property-tax collections fall again, the state doesn't pony up, or the feds make good on promises to cut back federal education spending--then who knows?

          Kujak looks at her watch and claps. Lunchtime. She turns to me as I'm leaving. "You know how they've got it set up now so that the taxes are being moved away from business," she says in a low voice. "That's hard. It's just going to make it more difficult for working families. People make those decisions, and no one does anything about it." (For the record, no one from the Minneapolis school district lobbied against the shift to market value.)

          The janitor comes with a cart full of egg rolls. "I just hope that people go and vote for this anyway," Kujak says.

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