School Funding is a Warm Sweater

school funding is a warm sweaterI was recently standing around the printer for teacher’s use at my son’s public elementary school, waiting for my Lego League rules to print. In the 23 minutes I waited, 9 teachers popped in and out to see if their print job was done. “Yes,” they agreed. Printing and copying in this building is under-resourced right now.

This is an excellent public school with an amazing staff and campus. This is the same school that has a state-of-the-art adapted playground under construction. The same school that started receiving Title One funding for ELL, special education, and targeted efforts to close its achievement gap last year. And, the same school that can only afford to have a nurse on site 4 days a week (though this is more than most)! These discrepancies illustrate the complicated mess of algorithms that is public education funding.

A recent MinnPost article by Beth Hawkins likened our school funding challenge at this time to “the gradual opening of faucets after a reservoir has been refilled.” This image, however, leaves out some nitty gritty, yet significant, details, such as the fact that the reservoir is not actually full. Much of what it takes to educate Minnesota’s students is still funded by an entirely separate pool managed by voters who will choose to open or not to open the levies.

In addition, the fingers on the faucets are not those of administrators or educators or even school board members: it’s lawmakers. Which means, those faucets will dribble open (and shut) as they campaign for their offices, are educated by stakeholders in the first weeks in office, debate at the Capitol, hear influential commentary from constituents and special interest groups and make compromised decisions based upon popular beliefs, myths, and influences well outside of what is best for Minnesota students.

This is a dim view. The truth is, this is also the messy business of democracy at work and the spending of tax dollars. Almost every stakeholder, no matter their view, believes strongly they have children’s best interest at heart. Let’s try a softer image to better understand what happens at the school level, and why there are printer shortages and amazing playgrounds in the same building: an old sweater.

Let’s think of each district as its own sweater—Minnesota has 341 sweaters that were knit by the state itself. Within the weave of each sweater, there are strong and tight threads that maintain the basic integrity of the garment. There are also snags; loose threads that got hung up on unexpected obstacles. When snags became holes that will eventually become runs, threatening to destroy the utility of the sweater, the holes were patched. Sometimes patches are provided directly to that sweater by voter levies, benevolent philanthropists, grants, or parent fundraising. Sometimes the sweater has to go back to the original knitter for repairs, but this takes awhile: a very long while.

And then there are times that the knitters send all the sweaters patches, some bigger some smaller, some perfect fits and some that just barely cover the holes. The educators and administrators and school boards knit them into the fabric at the local level.

Sometimes there are particular spots that tend to wear and pill. Administrators are also in charge of deciding whether to pluck off the pilling bits or dry clean the whole thing to see if it improves overall. Sometimes shrinking the sweater in the wash is the only thing that will keep it from unraveling.

Thankfully, it is very rare that the knitters will recall a sweater, or even threads. Generally once it’s knit it’s knit. As the sweaters age some threads get loose, some remain strong, some snag, some simply dissolve.

It is also important to understand that, each thread, each row, each cross-stitch, was done according to the knitter’s pattern at the state. Though the sweater is under the care of each district’s administration and school board, fundamentally, they do not have the freedom to tighten lose threads by pulling on adjacent threads because each was tied by the knitters into different funding sources. In other words, in this system, furnace repairs cannot be paid for with salary freezes. New printers cannot be purchased with playground money.

Luckily in Minnesota, we really appreciate our sweaters. It’s cold here. We need to stay warm and generally, our sweaters endure under even the harshest of conditions.


Written for the Minnesota grassroots nonprofit, Parents United for Public Schools

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