Fran Edstrom headshot March 2023

By Fran Edstrom, columnist


The way that school funding is managed in this state and district has always been a mystery to people who have to deal with financial reality.

Right now, I am still puzzling over how it can be that there are so many fewer students, but we need to spend more in our public schools. There are fewer students and fewer buildings to care for, but a nearly $100 million referendum is under consideration in the Winona Area Public Schools district. Statewide, public school enrollment has fallen by a half of a percent (two percentage points from fall 2019) as charter and private school enrollments have increased. Incomprehensibly, Gov. Tim Walz is proposing that we spend over $7 billion in new state aid in the next biennium on K-12 public education. 

There may be a formula that explains why this is necessary, but you would never know it by reading press releases from either the governor or the education commissioner.

“Minnesota's students deserve high-quality academic instruction and social-emotional supports,” said Education Commissioner Willie Jett in response to the governor’s proposal. “Our public schools must be provided with the necessary resources to meet these needs.”

Um. That wasn’t an explanation, that was a transmutation. 

The only real explanation I can think of for this largesse on the part of the governor and the current legislature is that there is a huge, $17.5 billion surplus. In case it isn’t clear, a surplus occurs when the state “takes in” more than it spends. Basically, the government overtaxes its citizens and then gets to decide how to spend the extra money. 

In comparison to the governor’s $7 billion in education spending, the amount proposed to buy all school-age kids free lunches is peanuts. The question is, should the state be buying school breakfasts and lunches for kids whose parents can well afford it? 

However, no-cost universal school meals are sure to pass this legislature. Funding for this program would total $388 million combined for fiscal years 2023-25 and $419 million combined in fiscal years 2026-27. 

No matter that there are already, and have been for many years, vehicles for families who need it to get free school lunch and breakfast. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “The state this year saw a huge increase in the number of students signed up for free school meals. That number jumped 37 percent in public schools, to 377,890, and 26 percent in private schools, to 8,580.” The article continues, “This is the first school year in three that the federal government is not covering meal costs for all students, giving more families reason to fill out income-based forms for free meals. At the same time, the state began directly certifying students for free school meals based on their enrollment in Medicaid, negating for many the need to turn in the forms.” 

So, any child who needs it can get free school meals, it’s getting easier, and people are taking advantage of the opportunity. Yet sponsors of the bills would have us believe that many, many kids are going hungry. 

If free lunches are already available to those in need, why give free lunches to those who don’t need the help? If inflation has made a difference to people who are on the borderline of eligibility, we can increase the income levels for program eligibility. If legislators are worried that there is a “stigma” attached to applying for free and reduced lunches, we can eliminate that stigma by making sure that a child’s lunch status is confidential. 

Matt Shaver, policy director for EdAllies, supports the bill and is one of the few willing to commit to a rationale. He cited a 2021 Brookings Institute study that found “schools providing access to universal meals raised achievement and decreased suspensions for students who would not have otherwise had access to subsidized meals.” 

We are holding you to that, Matt.