The budget presentation was fairly uneventful, except for a couple of sticking points where committee members were digging for more information and expressing their discontent before moving on. The first was around the budget for school nutrition programs. You don't have to spend much time in education and budget hearings to know that many members of the legislature are less than impressed with the current school nutrition program and harbor a fair amount of resentment at having to go along with it, even though only 10% of the state school nutrition budget actually comes from the state.
The grumbling took a new direction this year, as members lamented details of the free and reduced lunch program. In a state where the overall average of participants in free and reduced lunch is around 50% and some districts are well over 80%, we certainly have something to lament. (Hint: it's our shameful child poverty rate) Unfortunately, this didn't lead to a discussion about how we can eradicate poverty and alleviate stress on our struggling families. Rather, it evolved into a conversation about the old adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch", and critique of a system of automatic eligibility for families already receiving public assistance. That, however, is a conversation for another day.
Finally, the Committee moved on to hear the rest of the budget. The next sticking point came around the discussion of charter schools and the Charter Public School Commission. With bills moving to expand charter schools anywhere in the state with no significant improvements in accountability and transparency, it was good to hear members of the committee expressing deep concern. This was a timely conversation, as it occurred the day after the state board had some difficulty in deciding what to do about a couple of struggling charter schools in our state right now. You can read more about that here.
The committee asked hard questions like: Have we created a system where the department and the state board have no real authority to do anything when a school is ineffective and students are suffering? If the state board can't do anything about this, then who can? How does a school exist for several years before anyone realizes that they have no written curriculum? Why is the Director of the Charter Public School Commission being paid $147K to oversee one school and review some applications? And my favorite, doesn't this situation conjure images of chickens, coops, and foxes?
Overall, this important conversation raised the question, the buck stops...where?
It's an important question that we should all be asking our own representatives and senators right now. Who will be able to clean up the mess when we've siphoned funds away from the institutions that have anchored our communities for generations, and invested instead in an "industry" that has demonstrated more failure than success?
Right now in our state, revenues continue to fall short of our needs, and cuts are being made that jeopardize even our children's ability to get to school. This is not a time to expand privately-run schools that divert public funds without accountability to or control by local communities. Will you be in touch with your elected representatives this week to remind them of this? If you don't know who is representing you and your district in the capitol, you can find out by using the "Find My Legislator" feature on the MNEA App on your iPhone or Android device.
When you contact them, please share these four points on needed reform before any expansion should be considered:
- Charter boards should be appointed or elected by a public entity.
- Local concerns should be carefully considered before a school is approved.
- Charter and district schools should plan together to meet demographic changes and specialized program needs for all students in the community.
- Charter schools should become a part of the community's school system under the authority of the locally elected school board.
Thanks for your time and attention to this important matter in the midst of all that you do!
Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!