The biggest item almost on every legislative agenda is education. About 40 cents of every state dollar goes to Minnesota schools. And the way that money is doled out is broken, according to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Nearly 100 school districts asked voters for more taxes last fall.
But education officials expect schools still won't rank high among the Legislature's priorities this session.
"We do have to be cautious with the economic forecast coming up," says Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, who is bracing for more bad news in the next budget forecast, due later this month.
The last forecast predicted a nearly $400 million deficit. Since then, the state has slipped into recession.
"We need to see how to redeploy our money more effectively. Before we put more money on the table, are we using the existing money effectively and efficiently?" Seagren says.
Public education already got an $800 million boost this biennium. Still, officials say there's work to do while the state focuses on other matters.
Lawmakers last year weighed a limit on charter schools, in the wake of some high-profile financial or administrative charter school meltdowns. The cap wasn't approved, but lawmakers may take up the matter again, according to Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.
"For some people, it's about trying to save rural districts, and those kinds of issues that have nothing really to do with charter schools. In some ways charter schools have become part of a bigger debate," says Piccolo.
“Before we put more money on the table, are we using the existing money effectively and efficiently?”Education Commissioner Alice Seagren
Many questions, though, aren't likely to be answered by the end of May. The state's controversial Q-Comp program is trying to change the way teachers are evaluated and paid. It now covers teachers for about two in five Minnesota students. The Pawlenty administration is weighing spending as much as 10 percent more to expand that number, Seagren says.
"I think we're almost at a tipping point now," says Seagren. "I think there's a lot of interest in the program out there, and I think teachers are saying, 'Why aren't you in Q-Comp, if you're doing these things, why aren't you going after the money?'"
The biggest question of all, though, won't be asked in St. Paul this year. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization in Washington D.C. Its emphasis on testing, school choice and teaching standards may be as controversial as any change in education since desegregation.
None of the presidential candidates, even Democrats, have said they want to dump the law.
No Child Left Behind is here to stay, Seagren says. She thinks there is room for improvement, like a change to school ratings to better show what progress schools are making over time, not just a one-time snapshot of student performance.
"That's a good idea. And of course, our state is working on a growth model right now that would be an additional indicator to say that districts have made significant progress with their children," says Seagren.
Other items on the to-do list may include better background checks for school workers, and new standards for physical activity during the school day. The state may also expand qualifications for early teacher retirement.