CROOKSTON, Minn. (Valley News Live) - Jeremy Olson knows the power good teachers can have on students.
“My junior year in high school – I had these great experiences, great teachers – and I started thinking, ‘These people are really impactful. This is kind of a profession that seems to do a lot of good in people’s lives,’” Olson says. “I was fortunate enough to go to a high school that had a program that we could kind of do a teacher assistant type program, and started in that and I was hooked.
That inspiration turned into action - and now Olson is the Superintendent for Crookston Public Schools. But it hasn't always been easy – particularly, this year.
“We just went through about $400,000 of reductions,” says Olson. “We did end up having to do about 3 reductions as a district.”
“Sometimes you have to have some short term sacrifice to have some long term thriving for the district,” he adds.
Olson says the district lost three teaching positions when it had to pull $1,000,000 from its general education fund to pay for its special education program. And with special education costs rising, state legislators are working to close the gap before more sacrifices have to be made.
"That affects the whole education budget. It means that in some cases, you're going to be seeing teacher lay-offs, you're going to see program cuts, you'll see class sizes growing," says State Sen. Kent Eken (DFL – MN). “It’s not sustainable. And it’s reaching that breaking point, that crisis point.”
“The state is covering about 63% but that amount also has been continuing to decline,” Eken continues. "We, at the state level, need to ante up and take responsibility and be a true partner with our school districts.”
“An investment in our students is an investment in the future of Minnesota. It’s critical that we invest in our schools so Minnesotans are no longer forced to either cover the state’s education funding gap or face bigger class sizes, teacher layoffs, and less opportunity,” says Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (DFL – MN).
Governor Walz's new budget aims to invest $91,000,000 in special education alone, but some legislators are arguing for even stronger actions and more long-term solutions.
Initially, congress agreed to fund 40% of special education costs, but the current reality is that the federal government pays less than half of that - about 8% in Minnesota.
"It's time to go after the federal government. We have to start a lawsuit. It's hurting our state. It's so frustrating – i can't believe we're waiting this long. This is multiple administrations, Mr. Chair. It's time. Minnesota has to lead. We have to do something," says State Rep. John Huot (DFL – MN).
“Minnesota led the way in ensuring that every child in this state would have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. And I think that we need to lead the way once again to pressuring the federal government to live up to its obligations,” Eken says. "There's actually two members of congress from Minnesota – Pete Stauber and Angie Craig, one's a democrat, one's a republican – and they are both working together to try to address this problem at the federal level."
Stauber and Craig's plan would raise the federal government's funding to that 40% threshold over a ten year period - so more teachers can stay in their classrooms and inspire and challenge future generations.
"If we snapped our fingers and had the 40% back, we'd probably look at having many of those dollars move in to our 'gifted and talented' funding," Olson says.
In defense of its special education funding levels, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson says:
"Since its inception in 1975, the IDEA has recognized the critical importance of a robust financial commitment on the part of the federal government, states, and local education agencies in ensuring that all children with disabilities have access to a free appropriate public education. At the time the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the predecessor to the IDEA, was under discussion, Congress debated the appropriate level of federal funding for special education and related services. Ultimately, they agreed that 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure would be the maximum level of federal funding that states would receive. While section 611(a)(2) of the IDEA provides the maximum amount any state may receive, it does not require Congress to appropriate this amount. Congress retains the authority to determine the level of funding under IDEA each year.
The Department is committed to improving outcomes for children with disabilities, and if Congress sees fit to increase IDEA funding, we stand ready to support states in this critical work."