Kiss smaller class sizes goodbye

HMOs, the state and special-ed drive the district to pack 'em in

So much crapola is about to rain down on our city public schools I don't even know where to begin. For this column, let's start with referendum class-size: it's about to go up three to five kids per class.

This breaks my heart and angers me. My three sons go to public schools, and I've seen the benefits of learning in a smaller class up-close. It works, and we have Minneapolis voters, who approved three small-class referendums in 10 years, to thank for it.

So what happened? Why is the district now proposing to increase class-size -- something it's always held sacred and somehow managed to spare from more than $50 million worth of budget cuts in the last two years?

The district is plumb out of options, folks. Three big factors are at play here -- none of which the schools could actually control. But, trust me, the schools will still get the blame.

First there's the cost of health insurance. It's gone through the roof -- just like it has for all employers. The district expects a 24 percent increase in health insurance premiums next year.

Next, during this same period the state increased its funds for schools by less than three percent. Given the state's $5 billion deficit, no one expects any increases for next year.

What are the schools supposed to do? Suck it up, they're told. This would be easier if education weren't so labor-intensive. Despite all the conservative comparisons between kids and widgets, schools and factories and schools and industry, it turns out kids can't actually be taught or cared for by machines. Darn! You need real live human beings to do it. Darn! And the live ones need health insurance. Big-time darn!

The third factor behind the proposed increase in class-size is the elephant in the living room -- special education. No one wants to talk about special education and its relationship to budget woes; those who do are often accused of "beating up on the cripples." But special ed ain't just about cripples any more. It affects every voter in this city. Let me explain.

In 1976 Congress passed a law requiring all public schools to provide "a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to all students." Year-round. Until age 21.

Special Ed became the law -- a civil right. Who could be against it? No one, myself included. But no one wants to pay for it either. The feds originally promised to pay 40 percent of program costs but quickly backpedaled after realizing the program was going to be mighty expensive (duh!). They simply skipped out on the bill. They've never paid more than 14 percent.

So did the feds change the law? Oh, heck no. They just demanded that schools use local and state funds to pick up the federal tab for Special Ed students who keep arriving with increasingly complicated medical and social histories.

Remember the dramatic news stories about premature, less-than-two-pound babies? Or the sextuplets? Or the beautiful children who survived the car crash, the near-drowning, birth defects and other severe traumas? Or the kids beaten, starved or neglected by their drug-addicted parents? Remember the stories about the skyrocketing number of American toddlers diagnosed with autism?

Guess where they all end up by age 5? At their local public school. Where they will need Special Ed services that the schools are required by federal law to provide, no matter the cost. In many cases costs can easily run $30,000 or more per child per year.

As one frustrated district official put it, "We can eliminate sports, gifted and talented, band, orchestra, all our after-school programs, busing, increase class size--the works. And it’s legal. But if we don't provide a Special Ed kid with a personal aide or a certain kind of therapy, we're in state or federal court for non-compliance."

Last year, Minneapolis schools spent about $25 million on these federally required but unfunded Special Ed costs. That's most of the district's deficit right there. It was the same story last year and the year before that. Deficit after deficit, year after year until, eventually, something's got to give.

This year it will probably be referendum class-size. Who knows what it will be next year?

For the record, I believe a federal government that can afford huge tax cuts to multi-millionaires can afford to educate and care for its disabled children. Every single one. It's called putting your money where your mouth (and your law) is.

After all, that's what Minneapolis voters have done for the last 10 years. We wanted smaller class sizes. We put up the money.

I'm angry that the feds have basically come in and taken that referendum money by forcing the schools to spend it first and foremost on stuff the feds require but refuse to pay for. The feds would rather invade Iraq. Or build a trillion-dollar missile system.

This is a classic example of how choices made in Washington have immediate effect on our local lives and our kids. And we haven't even touched on the new poison pill for city schools, the brilliantly evil "No Child Left Behind Act," the upcoming slugfest over the state deficit and more. Another time. Another column.

Meanwhile, a bunch of parents, many from southwest Minneapolis, are organizing for the battles ahead. They've formed a parent-led organization called Save Our Schools 2003, which they hope to take statewide. Check out their website and join them.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer who can be reached at [email protected] or c/o the Southwest Journal.