Education study filled with challenges

ST. PAUL (AP) -- The charge: Study how public money is delivered to Minnesota classrooms and recommend ways to make the system more understandable, equitable and accountable for student performance.

The cast: superintendents, school board members, the teachers' union president, business leaders and other education experts.

The consensus: It'll be no easy assignment.

A school finance review that Gov. Tim Pawlenty promised on the campaign trail got off the ground Monday when he named 20 people to a task force that will begin meeting in August and attempt to wrap up by January.

Ric Dressen, the superintendent for Alexandria schools, and Dennis O'Brien, a St. Paul lawyer who specializes in education issues, will be the co-chairmen. O'Brien is a partner at the law firm where Pawlenty formerly worked.


"The amount of money involved is massive," Pawlenty said. "The complexities of the issues, the nuances behind the issues are significant."

Funding for public schools consumes more than 40 percent of the state's budget, or more than $11 billion over the next two years.

Pawlenty wants a funding model that distributes money based less on the number of students a district has and more on the actual cost of running programs. It should also be easier for the public to navigate, he said.

However, Pawlenty said the new system shouldn't disregard special challenges facing districts with high populations of immigrant or poor students. But accommodating special circumstances is how the current system grew so complicated.

Minnesota's school districts now receive a base amount from the state -- about $4,600 currently -- for every student. But some get additional funding depending on their geographic size, student demographics and area property wealth. It means some districts are spending thousands more per student than others.

The task force is likely to study ways to tie teacher pay more to performance and the growing use of local tax levies to supplement state education funding. Panelist Judy Schaubach, the president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, said she wants to look at the adequacy of state funding as well.

The goal is to put the panel's recommendations before the 2004 Legislature. Pawlenty envisions a pilot program in five to 15 districts before the suggestions are rolled out statewide.

Pawlenty's move to rework education funding comes two years after former Gov. Jesse Ventura did his own overhaul. But those changes focused more on where the money came from -- local property taxes versus general state taxes -- than how it was distributed.

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