Commentary

Teacher: Spend the surplus right and we can bring joy and stability back to students | Opinion

May 9, 2022 6:00 am

The author, who is a special education teacher, writes that without an injection of money, "Class sizes — some at an unconscionable 38 students — will grow even large." Photo by Getty Images.

I went into the field of special education because I wanted to support and advocate for kids with disabilities. School is hard for most of my students due to their disabilities, and that is exacerbated by insufficient state funding. When schools don’t have the resources they need, all kids pay the price, but our students with disabilities pay a uniquely higher price because they don’t have the tools they need to access their education like their peers. 

That’s why I was relieved to hear about our state’s historic $9.2 billion surplus. Somehow, despite a miserable pandemic, Minnesota has stumbled onto a tremendous opportunity to help the students in my classroom and students all over Minnesota. It’s enough money to help communities recover from COVID-19. And it’s enough to address racial and socioeconomic injustices that have been with us for decades, which are sustained in part by insufficient and inequitable school funding. 

At my school in White Bear Lake, I see the results of these funding failures on a daily basis. 

With $3.8 million in looming budget cuts, we expect to lose 22 teachers and six support staff next year. Class sizes — some at an unconscionable 38 students — will grow even larger, as will the ratio of students to support staff. Already — despite a widely reported student mental health crisis — three counselors serve 1,200 students. This is not the Minnesota I know and love.

And while I’ve heard a lot about that $9.2 billion in leftover state funds, I have yet to hear how it will be used to fix our schools, which are receiving less inflation-adjusted funding per pupil today than they did 20 years ago. 

If funding had simply kept up with inflation, my district would have an additional $4.4 million to support our students this year alone. That wouldn’t be enough to attract and retain all of the teachers and staff we need, or to add all of the special programs and courses our students desire, but it would be a start. As it stands, however, we can’t even afford to do the most basic things. 

Bus drivers, who are underpaid and offered only seasonal work without eligibility for unemployment benefits during summer layoffs, are in short supply. As a result, my home district averages five bus route cancellations each day, leaving as many as 100 children stranded with no way to get to school. The stress from interruptions like this make the difficult jobs of being a student or a parent even harder. Work days are interrupted, children feel anxious and abandoned, and schoolwork suffers.

The same is true of the highly skilled education support professionals (ESPs) that assist special ed teachers like myself. Low pay and taxing work environments have made qualified candidates so scarce that the ESPs we do have must cycle between two or three classrooms every hour. 

These are grave long-term challenges, but the budget surplus offers an opportunity to reverse a decades-long trend of declining school resources. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed an additional 2% on the general education formula, which would be a good start and would cost less than 5% of the $9.2 billion surplus. 

But Republicans can’t even agree to that. Their current plan offers no new money for school districts. Instead they are peddling income and Social Security tax cuts that benefit the rich. Senate analysis shows that Minnesotans making over $125,000 would get over $1 billion each year under the Republican plan. That’s more than double what Walz has asked for in additional school funding. 

For my district, the difference between the Senate Republicans’ education budget and the House DFL budget would be $7.5 million — enough to avoid potential cuts and to address many of our pressing challenges around staffing shortages, facility maintenance, and more. 

Without this money, the problems our district is experiencing will only worsen as understaffing burns out more and more of my colleagues, who will opt to leave for other fields or retire. In a state already home to crowded classrooms and some of the worst educational attainment gaps in the country, this would be disastrous. 

Money matters, and the idea that we can do more with less is a harmful myth. A 2018 report from the Learning Policy Institute surveyed a wide range of academic research and reaffirmed what many instinctively know to be true: Fully funding schools would not only ensure we hang on to good teachers, maintain manageable class sizes and increase graduation rates. One of the studies included in the survey found that a 22% increase in funding for low-income students can erase attainment gaps entirely. That is the sort of visionary investment our schools need, and with the surplus on hand we can easily afford it. 

More important than any performance metric, fully funding our schools would mean restoring the sense of stability and joy that every child deserves, and that communities and families rely on. 

For the next two weeks, legislators and the governor will wrangle over how much to spend on schools and other important public needs, and how much to give away in tax cuts for the wealthy. If we are willing to think ahead and invest in our state’s economic and societal well-being, we will start to finally address the funding issues that have harmed students and public education for 20 years. To waste this opportunity would be irresponsible.

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Claire Luger
Claire Luger

Claire Luger is a special education teacher in the White Bear Lake School District and member of the Wyoming City Council. Claire feels strongly about better legislative funding of public education funding, labor rights and punk rock.

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