Democrats in the Minnesota House are proposing an ambitious agenda for improving public education by raising taxes and increasing funding for schools by $550 million.
The House Education Finance Committee holds a hearing on the omnibus budget bill Wednesday. DFL leaders claim that within 14 years the plan will close the racial and economic achievement gaps that separate some students from their classmates.
House Democrats are not taking aim just at the elusive achievement gap. They claim that a 100 percent graduation rate, with all students reading by third grade and 100 percent career and college readiness is also within reach.
They've set 2027 as the target for those goals. That is the year students who begin kindergarten next year would be ready to graduate. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said the bill would for the first time fund all-day kindergarten in every school district.
"You've heard if you've been in committee study after study after study that shows the benefits of starting early," Marquart said. "The big point is, let's invest early to prevent the achievement gap rather than trying to spend billions of dollars trying to close it later."
That preemptive strategy also includes $50 million for pre-school, early learning scholarships targeted to low income families. Schools would see a $209 per student increase in the basic funding formula. Funding disparities between property-rich and property-poor districts would be narrowed by about 10 percent.
But Marquart stressed that money alone won't guarantee results. He said that's why schools will be required to develop detailed plans for meeting performance goals and to review them annually. Marquart said schools that fall short of goals will get assistance from the Minnesota Department of Education.
"We actually have assurances in the system that this isn't just going to be something on paper," Marquart said. "We actually have a plan in place to make sure that the results are there with the resources we've provided."
Rep. Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine, the lead Republican on the House Education Committee, had some kind words for a few of the provisions in the bill. But Woodard said he has big concerns about the way Democrats would pay for their proposed education spending. The DFL plan relies on new taxes, including an income tax increase on wealthy Minnesotans. Woodard contends that lawmakers could help schools without raising taxes.
"We know we've got an additional billion dollars in revenue coming in without addressing taxes. We'd like to fund some things in education without dipping into Minnesota's pockets and increasing their taxes," Woodard said. "We feel like Minnesota taxpayers are already overburdened. We don't feel it's necessary to do that in order to do good things in education."
But Democrats disagree. House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said new tax revenue is essential. And when it comes to schools, Thissen is convinced that the public supports the DFL approach.
"Oh, I think that there's no question that that is the case. That's what people tell us all the time," Thissen said. "They're willing to pay more as long as they know the investments are going to things that work and are going to make a difference for our kids, but more importantly for the state of Minnesota in general. And I think that the proposals we see here today are absolutely going to do that."
House Democrats are also proposing to pay back about $850 million owed to schools from previous budget deals. But that provision, which relies on a separate and temporary tax on top earners, will be part of the House tax bill they plan to roll out later this month.