Education funding shifts and special education, and early childhood programs were at the forefront during a Tuesday forum among District 57 legislative candidates.
A crowd of residents and school officials filled a Black Hawk Middle School auditorium on Oct. 9 to hear from the five contenders.
The forum, hosted by the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, included Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, Roberta Gibbons, District 57A DFL candidate, and Republican Anna Wills and Democrat Jeff Wilfahrt, who are seeking the District 57B House seat held by Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, and Greg Clausen, a Democrat who is seeking the District 57 Senate seat held by Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley. Pat Hall, the Republican candidate for District 57, didn’t attend the forum.
The event also included legislative candidates for District 51, which represents Eagan and Burnsville.
From the beginning, Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on whether education is adequately funded in Minnesota.
Republicans said they believe education is adequately funded in Minnesota, while Democrats insisted that the state underfunds its schools.
Wilfahrt disagreed saying that the state has failed to keep pace with inflation when funding education.
As an example, Wilfahrt pointed to recent shifts in funding, which he noted has caused school districts to rely more heavily on borrowing and property tax levy referendums. Although District 196 didn’t seek a referendum this year, it did borrow $15 million to balance its budget.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the state owed Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District $78.7 million, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage $28.2 million and West St. Paul-Mendota-Eagan $12.7 million as of June 2012.
“The shift has become bad policy,” Wilfahrt said.
Gibbons echoed Wilfahrt’s sentiments.
“When we have a well-educated workforce, we send kids to good-paying jobs,” she said. “We need to make sure (the shifts) don’t happen in the future.”
Clausen, a former Rosemount High School principal, added that he believes inconsistent funding leads to higher class sizes, layoffs and unfunded mandates, which in turn lower the quality of education.
“Minnesota was 15th in the state, and now its 36th in the state for K-12 funding,” he said.
Mack saw a very different picture, noting that District 196 received increases in per pupil funding during the last legislative session despite the shifts in funding.
She predicted that funding shifts will not be used in the future to balance the state budget, and said she is proud of her legislative decisions.
Wills agreed but was concerned that borrowing from school districts is used as a bargaining chip to balance the state budget.
When asked how they plan to balance the state budget without imposing shifts in education funding, few candidates provided detailed plans.
Mack insisted that, although the state Legislature used education funding shifts to balance its budget last session, the measure will be avoided in the future.
“It was a difficult position, but the final decision is better than the governor’s proposed 50/50 shift instead of the 30/70.”
Mack additionally noted that District 196 received increases to its funding since 2003.
Wills echoed Mack’s sentiments and pointed out that the state budget currently has a $2 billion surplus.
“We will be looking at an increase in spending if we continue on autopilot,” she said. “If we scale back, we will meet projected spending.”
Gibbons took a different approach by proposing that the state consider closing corporate tax loopholes to balance the budget instead of shifting education funding.
“It’s not right,” she said. “We pay property taxes and overall taxes to ensure we have a world class education.”
Clausen agreed, adding that balancing the state budget will require tax reform, managed spending, budget reductions and “revenue enhancements,” but didn’t specify what those would be.
Wilfahrt said he believes the state must look at revenue sources other than property taxes to fund schools, but did not provide examples.
When asked how they will ensure children are ready for kindergarten, the candidates took different paths to support early childhood education programs.
Mack, who has a 16-month-old daughter, said she believes vouchers should be given to low-income families to provide education to their young children.
Wills said she believes these programs must be managed by local school districts.
“What works in one district might not be best in other districts,” she said, adding that strengthening the economy is vital to supporting these programs.
Democrats took a different approach by favoring support for publicly funded early childhood education programs.
“Early childhood programs have a return on investment of 80 percent,” Gibbons said. “Vital, vibrant ECFE programs are needed and we must make sure they are funded.”
Clausen agreed, adding that studies show children who receive early childhood education are more likely to obtain higher paying jobs and less likely to use welfare programs.
Wilfahrt said he believes that these programs are instrumental in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
“We need to look at preparing children for the world economy,” he said.
When discussing the federal special education mandate, candidates disagreed on whether the mandate is too strict or too lenient, but agreed that it is underfunded.
Gibbons said she believes the mandate doesn’t provide enough requirements, but didn’t suggest changes.
“The time we invest will get a return with vibrant students,” she said.
Clausen said he believes the requirements are adequate but that the mandate is underfunded by the federal government.
“We need to look at how we will fund this in the future,” he said.
Wills agreed that the federal government underfunds the mandate and said she believes the Legislature must take up the slack by increasing state funding for the program.
Wilfahrt said there must be changes made to funding and special education services by testing children earlier.
Mack said she believes services in District 196 could serve as a model of other school districts.
When discussing ways the state can ensure school districts are providing excellent and equitable education, candidates agreed there must be standards in place and school choice options available to achieve this goal.
Clausen said he believes the state must examine standards for teaching and implement best practices.
Mack agreed, adding that resources should be directed to the classroom and parental involvement should be encouraged.
Wills suggested that schools look at offering rigorous classes such as post-secondary options.
“We need to encourage more of this to prepare students for the workforce in the future,” she said.
Gibbons said she believes school choice is important to achieving excellence, and noted that her son transferred from Apple Valley High School to the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley.
“We need for all children to learn in a way that best fits them,” she said.
Wilfahrt, who admitted he is not well versed in the education field, said he would like to consult teachers and other education professionals prior to making a decision.
When asked whether school districts should determine layoffs by seniority, some found compromise, while others divided.
Wills said she believes seniority and performance evaluations should be considered with layoffs.
Wilfahrt disagreed saying he believes seniority should be a deciding factor.
“I believe in organized labor,” he said. “Seniority is the last protection from the collapse of the middle class.”
Gibbons agreed in supporting labor unions, adding that she doesn’t support basing layoffs on student performance.
“There are too many other factors in student performance,” she said.
Mack said she values seniority but that it shouldn’t be the only factor when deciding on layoffs.
Clausen noted that layoffs wouldn’t be an issue had the state avoided imposing education funding shifts.
He said he believes there is value in seniority but that criteria for layoffs should be set by individual school districts.