One of the best parts about being a legislator in Minnesota—and probably in any other state, for that matter—is having the opportunity to meet with some of the thousands of elementary and high school students who visit the Capitol every year.
Though more often than not the kids are only stopping by because they are from my district and their teacher has required them to visit their legislator, every once in a while I get students who find me on their own and surprise me with their knowledge of the political process and some of the issues that are important to them.
While talking to students who are engaged in their education and their government will certainly brighten a day that’s too stuffed with lobbyists looking for a piece of our ever-shrinking budgetary pie, I have long wanted to find something—an issue, a bill, a current event, anything—I could use to reduce the chance of turning a trip to the Capitol into a scene reminiscent of Ben Stein’s class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
So the first time I asked a group of high school students if any of them would be interested in graduating early, I knew I was onto something. When I asked those same students if the prospect of several thousand dollars in scholarship money would motivate them to finish high school early, kids who used to wait patiently for their teacher to move them along suddenly started paying attention and asking questions—a lot of them, namely, “Where can I sign up, and how does it work?”
My answer: the Early Graduation Achievement Act (EGAA). It’s as simple as it sounds—graduate early, get cash.
How much cash depends on each student’s particular level of motivation.
For the purposes of my bill, I set up a graduated scale that would award $7,500 to a student completing all his required coursework midway through his junior year; $5,000 to a student finishing at the end of his junior year; and $2,500 to a student finishing midway through his senior year. The money could be used at any accredited post-secondary institution in Minnesota, and participation in the program wouldn’t preclude students from taking part in some of the time-honored traditions of high school, such as homecoming and prom.
If student achievement is so important, I want to know why some of our most motivated high school students are being forced to spend time in classes they don’t need, particularly if they’ve met all the requirements the state has asked them to complete. If they want to go to college early or get on with their careers, we should not only allow them to do so, we should encourage them to do so.
In addition to getting some of our best and brightest out the door, there is another, more politically beneficial reason for introducing the EGAA: budget savings. The state of Minnesota is projected to run a $6.4 billion deficit for the 2010-11 biennium. Because we have a balanced-budget amendment written into our constitution, the state legislature and the governor need to come up with some kind of solution by our mandated adjournment date of May 18.
Balancing a deficit of that size will, of course, be a Herculean task. I believe it is incumbent upon every legislator to find someplace where budget savings can be found. So here’s how my plan saves taxpayer dollars.
Roughly speaking, the state of Minnesota annually spends $9,500 per student. My conservative estimate is that about $2,000 of that amount can be subtracted to account for aid to students with disabilities. That leaves an average annual expenditure of $7,500 per student. If the average scholarship awarded totals $5,000, that will produce a savings of $2,500 per student—money that can be booked as savings for the state’s General Fund or used for other education programs.
Multiply that amount by the estimated number of students who would be eligible under the EGAA, and $25 million of cost savings is instantly realized. And as the cost of a college education continues to rise and students see their friends taking advantage of this “free money,” there’s no reason to believe the savings to the state wouldn’t increase over time.
Now more than ever, America needs an education system that produces young people who are ready to compete with the best the rest of the world has to offer. Complacency and reliance on a system that may have served us well during the twentieth century will not help us compete in the twenty-first.
Whatever we policymakers and elected officials can do to encourage and motivate our students to get ahead is a responsibility we must take seriously.
For my part, I think early graduation scholarships and the opportunity they afford students is an innovative and reform-minded idea when we need one most.
Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington, [email protected]) is a third-term member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. He serves as the ranking Republican on the House K-12 Education Finance committee.