The Smiling Face of Pain

The "new" Tim Pawlenty looks a lot like the old one

In health care, Pawlenty's response was to make a big splash with a feel-good policy proposal he must have known he couldn't honor. In education, the gambit is even more audacious: Deny adequate funding to the neediest schools as a tough-love incentive to improve their performance.

Many, if not most, Minnesota schools are facing huge financial challenges. First, there is the matter of basic education funding. Pawlenty contends that 2 percent increases in the school district formula for each year of the 2008-09 budget will keep pace with the rate of inflation. But the governor is using the Consumer Price Index (estimated to rise 2.1 percent in 2008 and 1.8 percent in 2009), and not the implicit price deflator for state and local government purchases. Economists believe this price deflator index is a better gauge of school expenditures, because it reflects a greater emphasis on the purchase of fuel and personnel costs than is faced by the average consumer. And the government price deflator is pegged closer to 2.5 percent annually during 2008-09, which, if true, means that Pawlenty's basic funding would leave the schools with millions of dollars in fresh red ink.

Of even greater concern is the rising cost of special education. By federal law, schools have to provide an equal and adequate education to all students. The federal government has never fulfilled its pledge to fund 40 percent of special education costs; currently they foot just 17 percent of the bill. The state of Minnesota has hardly picked up the slack. "The state has done just enough to avoid being sanctioned by the federal government," claims Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. "The average school district is spending $500 per student in general education revenue to keep up with special education. That's $518 million of general education revenue statewide. And if we don't keep up with the federal mandates, we will be taken to court and we will lose."

The governor's proposed 2 percent hike in special education funding doesn't keep pace with the runaway cost, meaning that even more general education revenues will be thrown into the breach.

Pawlenty is well aware of the widespread public support for education, but his refusal to raise taxes hamstrings his budgetary options. His solution is to mount the accountability soapbox, offering $150 million in one-time moneys to be divided up as a reward among "Successful Schools" that meet the state's testing standards in reading or math under the federal No Child Left Behind law. More than 75 percent of the public schools currently would qualify. Most of the ones that don't are urban schools serving a higher percentage of impoverished and immigrant students, or are "alternatives schools" and "area learning centers" specially designed to deal with students who had difficulty in a typical school setting.

In other words, they are the schools most in need of some extra funding, yet under Pawlenty's "Successful Schools" initiative, they would be the ones specifically deprived of it. Pawlenty justifies this approach with a quote that he purposefully highlighted in press materials as the theme for both his State of the State speech and his biennial budget message: "Minnesota government should stop paying for good intentions and start paying for better performance."

Meanwhile, it is generally acknowledged that while Minnesota's composite test scores rank among the best in the nation, we have a significant "achievement gap" along class and racial lines. Despite its high overall marks, Minnesota ranks 40th in the nation in education spending as a percentage of personal income, and is right about at the national average in per-pupil spending for education.

"The governor's education budget comes down to those who do well getting some extra money and those not doing well getting screwed," says Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller. "Even the suburban superintendents say that it appears his entire budget is structured to help those who are already successful. The biggest problem in our education budget is special education, and he is basically doing nothing. That makes it impossible to really reform high schools the way he wants. The reality is that the schools have basic infrastructure needs—special education, the cost of running buildings—that, to be addressed properly, need money in the formula. Otherwise, the things he is talking about sound good, but they are not real."

 

Among the many charming aspects of Tim Pawlenty's political persona is a lack of pomposity, the appearance that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Pawlenty speeches almost invariably begin with a self-deprecating joke. More recently, another staple of his remarks has been a plea for comity, and a humble acknowledgement that the public wants rival political parties and jurisdictions to work together.

What the "new" Pawlenty has not yet done is make a bold, magnanimous gesture that would give heft and meaning to his calls for conciliation. Agreeing to sign—or at least not to veto—a bill increasing the state gas tax for the first time since 1988 would qualify as such a gesture.

Two years ago, when bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate passed a gas tax and sent it to Pawlenty, he stamped VETO on the bill in huge red letters and called the legislators "dumb" for wasting his time. Since then, the state has embarrassed itself by asking contractors to temporarily fund their own highway construction work, by delaying some already approved projects to cobble together enough funding for others, and by jeopardizing the safety of its roadways by using highway maintenance money for new construction.

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