The House plan increases education spending by 9.4 percent over the current biennium. DFL leaders say the bill is also full of important reform and accountability initiatives that will improve schools and help close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee, was proud of the ambitious proposal.
"This bill that we have is, we think, the most comprehensive for getting students ready for competing in society bill that we've had presented in the House of Representatives in the last 20 years," she said. "This is a wonderful bill. It's balanced and fair to every student around the state of Minnesota."
The bill adds $980 million to current education spending. Nearly half of that new funding goes toward increasing the basic funding formula for state school districts. Every district would get 3 percent more per pupil in each of the next two years.
There's also money for all school districts to offer a voluntary, all-day, everyday kindergarten option beginning in 2008. In addition, preschool programs would get a significant funding boost. Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, said getting more children ready to start school will ultimately save the state money. She said the savings will come in part from fewer students winding up in high-cost special education or remedial classes.
"I think you all know that early childhood provides the biggest bang for the buck when you're talking about the education dollar," she said. "We know, and the Federal Reserve Bank has studied this, and they estimate that for every dollar invested in early education, it creates a return of between $7 and $17."
House Democrats are using the education bill to deliver part of the property tax relief they've been promising. The bill commits $125 million to buy down local school tax levies and ease the burden on local taxpayers. Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, acknowledged every part of the state would get some benefit from the bill.
"Granted it's very, very hard not to spend $980 million of new money and not do some good things," he said.
But Sviggum and other Republicans complained loudly about what they see as a growing funding disparity among some school districts. The state funding formula already provides additional money to school districts with high concentrations of poverty. Sviggum objects to Minneapolis and St. Paul getting still more than other districts.
"As I look at this bill, and I see the disparity growing by $153 per pupil unit, I'm upset. I'm very, very upset," he said. "You're doing that to my school kids and to my teachers and you ought not. You ought to be treating them more fairly."
But rural and urban lawmakers alike rejected Sviggum's argument and his amendment to change the calculation. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL- Dilworth said Sviggum's rhetoric was divisive and could hurt students.
"Why do we have dollars going to some districts more than others? Because of the need," he said. "If we're truly going to close the achievement gap, let's put the dollars where the need is."
One significant amendment lawmakers passed would allow charter school students to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities in their home school district-even though they're not technically enrolled in the district. The House bill spends more than Gov. Tim Pawlenty's education plan, but it includes many of the governor's initiatives. The House, unlike the Senate, protected the governor's performance pay program for teachers and his plan to upgrade high schools. But the property tax relief portion of the House education bill hinges on a larger DFL tax plan to increase income taxes. The governor has repeatedly threatened to veto any tax increases.