Who’s Misleading?

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Our new billboard across the street from the Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters has sparked some important discussion.

The billboard’s calculation of $525,000 per classroom per year is derived from taking Minneapolis’ 2014 spending per student—$21,000—and multiplying it by a classroom of 25 students (which we’ve been told is pretty generous for the Minneapolis district).

The Star Tribune’s piece on the billboard was very popular, and garnered over 500 comments. In these comments, many members of the public expressed frustration about a system they perceive as tying educational improvement almost solely to increased funding.

The Minnesota Department of Education was asked by the local news media to respond to the billboard. Unfortunately, in their response, they offered no sympathy for the students who have been underserved by a mediocre education in some of the Minneapolis schools. They offered no sympathy for the people who dutifully pay their property taxes for education each year, even though it hurts.

Instead, they chose to take a swipe at us. They said that Minneapolis Public Schools' true spending per student for 2014 was $14,131. They said we were wrong to include “mortgage expenditures and construction costs” in the total amount.

They accused us of being “misleading.”

Given the accusation, I thought it best to offer a response and explanation.

At Better Ed, we obtain our figure of $21,000 spent per student by taking the total expenditures from the Minneapolis district’s budget and dividing it by the total enrollment provided in that budget. We’ve always been clear about this on our website:

This figure includes the spending on teacher salaries and benefits, school lunches, building maintenance, community education classes, capital projects, and payments on the district’s $400 million debt. Why do we include all of these things? Because the system considers all of them necessary to educate children today.

The MN Dept. of Education, however, doesn’t include many of these budget items in what they report to the public about school spending. As you can see in the image below—taken from the Dept.’s website—they only include the General Fund expenditures (circled in red) in their calculation. They exclude food, mortgage payments, building upkeep costs, and debt payments, even though these items are a very significant part of most families’ budgets. In the case of the Minneapolis district, they exclude $250 million of taxpayer funds from their calculations (items 16-19 below):

At best, the Dept. of Education’s omission of these items in their spending per student calculation is arbitrary; at worst, it’s deceptive. Don’t Minnesota taxpayers have a right to know how all of the educational funds they provide are being spent?

Who’s being misleading?