Minnesota House approves education funding bill; Dayton wants more
ST. PAUL — The Republican-led Minnesota Legislature took a big step Friday, March 31 toward another showdown with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton over education funding and policy.
The Minnesota House approved $273 million in new education funding Friday with a 75-54 vote. Next week, the Senate is expected to debate a slightly larger bill with $300 million in new spending.
Republicans say their proposals add to the $18.2 billion the state is expected to spend on education the next two years where districts need it most — the per pupil funding formula that covers general operating costs. The House bill would give districts a 1.25 percent per student increase each year, and the Senate's would add 1.5 percent annually.
Gov. Dayton and his Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party colleagues say, with a $1.6 billion budget surplus, that is nowhere near enough new funding. Dayton has proposed more than $700 million in new spending on schools, including $371 million to increase the funding formula by 2 percent each year.
It's a familiar fight. In 2015, Dayton vetoed the education funding bill because he thought it was too small of a spending increase, driving the Legislature into overtime.
This year, Dayton is particularly unhappy with the House budget proposal because it funnels money away from one of his key priorities — a voluntary public preschool program. He has said House Republicans' proposal turns educating 4-year-olds into a "bargaining chip" and that thousands could lose access to preschool.
Republicans have long opposed Dayton's dream of a universal public preschool system. They argue many districts don't have the space, and it's better to use scholarships and school readiness aid to help low-income families afford early childhood education programs.
"We all have a limited number of resources at the end of the day to do good things with," Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who is chair of the Education Finance Committee, said before the House debate. "We are trying to make sure we are reaching as many kids as we can with the dollars we have."
Loon added that she thought House Republicans could eventually come to an agreement with Dayton on education spending.
Democrats countered that if Republicans want a bill the governor will support, they should make investing in public schools a bigger priority considering the state's large budget surplus.
"This Republican education bill is a big setback at a time when we should be leaping ahead of the competition," Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said in a statement before the debate.
Republican lawmakers' budget bills also include policy provisions that are likely to lead to a veto should they reach Dayton's desk. The House education funding bill includes a change to teacher layoff rules the governor has said he opposes.
The Republican proposal would require school leaders and their teachers unions to negotiate a local plan for how teachers would be laid off if staffing needed to be cut for budget or other reasons. It also would eliminate fallback language now in state law that, absent an alternative plan, bases layoffs on seniority, a system also referred to as "Last In, First Out," or LIFO.
Republicans say the change is necessary to help school officials keep the best educators in the classroom. Many Democrats and teachers union leaders say the state already has systems to negotiate alternative layoff plans and keep the best teachers.
The layoff changes had already passed the House on their own, but they haven't progressed in the Senate where Republicans hold a slimmer majority of just one seat.
Tax bills in both chambers include a credit for donations to help low-income students attend private schools that also could lead to a veto by the governor. Opponents of the measure say the credits are similar to "vouchers" for private school tuition that will siphon needed revenue from public schools.
Some supporters think the tax credit falls short on accountability and there needs to be a way to measure if low-income students are doing better academically when they attend a private school instead of a public school.
One place lawmakers have more common ground is in the need to reform the way Minnesota licenses educators. Next week, the House is expected to debate a bipartisan bill that remakes the Minnesota Board of Teaching and creates a new tiered system for teaching licenses.
The proposal comes after years of debate about the problems with the existing system that many educators trained out-of-state or in alternative programs say is unfair and confusing. The changes are similar to recommendations made by the state Legislative Auditor after the agency examined the licensing system last year.
Minnesota faces a growing shortage of teachers in key specialties, such as math, science and special education, and many education advocates hope reforming the licensing system will help increase and diversify the state's teaching force.
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.