"Classroom expenses": Pawlenty's latest education shenanigans

Not so very long ago, theoretically serious people were making theoretically serious remarks about Tim Pawlenty running for President. Now Minnesota's governor is on a press conference per day pace out of fear that he won't even win reelection.

In between last week's multi-point program to beat back the hordes of illegal immigrants diluting the Scandinavian heritage of our state, and Tuesday's proposal to toss $123 million in bonding at our state prison system so that we can "lock up sex offenders," Pawlenty spent his Monday confab with the press meddling in the spending patterns of local school districts. According to his official website, he "proposes requiring 70 percent of education spending be in the classroom."

"After dramatically increasing K-12 funding last legislative session, we want to ensure that those dollars are well spent," Pawlenty announced, calling his plan "common sense" because state funding would be "targeted on children, not bureaucracies."

As campaign positions go, declaring that you'll spend education dollars on cherubic children instead of faceless bureaucrats is fairly foolproof. The reality behind the rhetoric, however, isn't quite that simple.

Take that part about "dramatically increasing K-12 funding," for instance. Because of the actions in the last legislative session, the basic school funding formula will indeed rise by 4 percent in 2006. But the Minnesota Department of Finance has subsequently announced that they expect Minnesota's inflation rate to be 3.5 percent this year. Because Pawlenty and the other lawmakers at the Capitol haven't budgeted for inflation since 2001, that leaves a measly half-percent real-dollar increase in the formula for 2006. And that amounts to less than the $159 million in local property taxes Pawlenty tapped to make his education budget look good.

Tim Pawlenty has never accepted responsibility for the rise in local property taxes resulting from his policies. Without that local property tax hike, the state's commitment to education wouldn't even be able to keep pace with inflation. Yet Pawlenty has the gall to cite the state's generous education budget as justification for telling local school districts how to spend their money.

Move on to the part of the statement where Pawlenty wants to spend the money "on children, not bureaucracies." No politician has ever lost an election bashing bureaucracies, but they exist to administer, monitor, and implement programs. And few programs churn out as much red tape as the federal No Child Left Behind initiative that Pawlenty has steadfastly supported. First NCLB set up an obstacle course of measurements and impossibly high standards, practically guaranteeing that all public schools would sooner or later fail. When that began happening and the inevitable backlash ensued, the feds began granting waivers and exceptions to the rules all over the place.

Local school administrators have also had to devote significant bureaucratic resources to cope with the numerous changes in state education standards over the past ten years. (Remember Profile of Learning?) Funding sources have also fluctuated in that time, with the state picking up the lion's share of education funding during the Ventura Administration (part of Jesse's "Big Fix") only to see it inexorably swinging back to the local level under Pawlenty. Meanwhile, the state has delayed its payments to local districts for five years in a row, an accounting trick that helps Pawlenty and company balance the budget while adding to the need for capable, and expensive, administrators in the school districts.

Finally, there is the question of what does and doesn't qualify as "classroom expenses." The various answers only occasionally stray into the realm of "common sense."

For example, it is good and appropriate that special education programs are regarded as classroom expenses. However, this appears to be a change in policy for the Governor, who, when confronted with a $4 billion deficit in 2003, pledged that education in the classroom would be "held harmless." Then he froze special education funding despite increased enrollments and enormous increases in costs that, because they were federally mandated, had to be paid. Yet Pawlenty's bio over the next two years stubbornly included the notion that he solved the deficit without raising taxes or harming the funding for classroom education. If he believed what he was saying, then he didn't regard special education as part of classroom expenses.

Monday's press briefing gave a clearer indication of what does and doesn't qualify as classroom expenses. Teacher salaries and benefits, special education, vocational education, and instructional supplies comprise the major items that made the cut. But money spent on guidance counselors, school nurses, media centers and libraries, principals and superintendents, athletics, maintenance workers, and teacher training are all not considered to be classroom expenses.

"Not counting libraries, media centers, computer labs; it is ridiculous to assert that those things are not related to classroom learning and classroom instruction," says Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. "Do we really think that parents and students consider these learning aids nonessential and not related to what happens in the classroom?"

To demonstrate how specious these criteria can be, a district that buys hundreds of power saws and other "instructional supplies" for "vocational education," theoretically could turn all the voc-ed students loose razing the libaries, media centers, computer labs and they would actually improve their spending percentage on what Pawlenty is defining as "classroom expenses." But in this age of soundbyte journalism, the fallout from all this is probably a more widespread public peception that Tim Pawlenty believes in greater accountability of our education resources. Go figure.