How much money is enough money?

How much money should it take for a public school to educate a child?

Parents, like many who attended Monday's rally for more money by raising someone else's taxes, really aren't interested in the intricacies of K-12 funding. As a legislative action committee member, I have had countless parents' eyes glaze over as soon as I say the words "funding formula." They just want a decent education for their kids in exchange for the taxes they pay, and the schools are saying they need more money to deliver it. They trust the schools (what choice do they have), so they board the bus to the Capitol, write a letter, and demand more money. The ideologues include phrases like "core values" in their arguments.

But what if there was an objective way to look at both how financially efficient a school district is, and at how effective a district is in graduating students, compared to districts with similar economic and ethnic demographics? Wouldn't that be the bottom line on funding requests?

This is what Cheri Yecke did, shortly before she became a candidate for Congress in Minnesota's Sixth District. In her report released last month, Efficiency and Effectiveness in Minnesota's School Districts: How Do Districts Compare?, Yecke provides the rest of us with some easy-to-understand data (even if you were taught integrated math) upon which to start an intelligent conversation on how much K-12 funding is enough.

For example, Yecke found that "Although similar in size and demographics, St. Paul manages to graduate 72 percent of its students, compared to 53 percent for Minneapolis -- and spends $1,000 less per student doing so." Why is that? What are they doing differently in Saint Paul from what they do in Minneapolis? Maybe more money doesn't guarantee better results after all.

Yecke also notes that, according to a related study, "In terms of equity between high and low poverty districts, Minnesota ranks fifth in the nation as one of only twenty-four states that provide higher levels of funding to high-poverty districts [than to low-poverty districts]. We rank sixth among all states in terms of providing more funding for districts with high minority populations [than to districts with low minority populations]."

Parents and taxpayers need more studies like this to help us evaluate calls for increases in funding, and to help our schools deliver better outcomes for all Minnesota children (whatever happened to the Minnesota Education League?)

UPDATE: Joe Soucheray asserts that, given declining public school enrollments and ever-rising funding that now consumes 43% of the state budget, we don't have a funding problem, we have a spending problem.