Gov. Mark Dayton signed an education budget bill Wednesday that boosts funding for public schools over the next two years, funds all-day kindergarten statewide for the first time and retools high school testing requirements.
Dayton praised both the passage of the bill, and the tax increases that will pay for the new education spending.
There was no shortage of hyperbole during a brief signing ceremony for a bill that supporters had already claimed will create the "world's best workforce." Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the chair of the Senate Education Finance Committee, said the funding measure was a "grand slam" that will help turn the school financing tide of the past decade.
"This is the best education bill to be signed in Minnesota history," Wiger said.
The $15.7 billion bill is the biggest piece of the state budget. It increases education spending by $485 million over current levels. The centerpiece is $134 million to fund a free all-day kindergarten option for families in every school district.
There's also new money for early childhood education scholarships, special education programs and a 1.5 percent increase in the basic per-pupil formula each of the next two years.
Dayton credited lawmakers for passing the bill, and for passing a tax bill that raises $2 billion in new revenue. Dayton said Minnesota students were shortchanged for too long. He said the tax bill allows for a historic investment that will pay off for the entire state.
"More money for education doesn't absolutely guarantee success, but less money for education absolutely guarantees failure," Dayton said. "We're not going to improve test scores, close the achievement gap, or get our kids ready for a very competitive world by reducing the investment in education."
The bill also puts in place a new system for measuring student achievement. It repeals the high-stakes tests that students are currently required to pass before high school graduation. Dayton said those tests have been "onerous" and "absurd."
"There were kids who were denied diplomas and then found out halfway through the summer that the testing company had made mistakes in their grading," Dayton said. "I'm for accountability, but not past the point of absurdity. And that's where we've gone."
Republican lawmakers opposed the testing changes. They also questioned the spending increase. GOP Rep. Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine said he doesn't believe that putting more money into the same old programs is the way to close persistent achievement gaps.
Woodard, who is the lead Republican on the House K-12 Education Finance Committee, also accused Democrats of using "empty slogans," and overselling the potential impact of all-day kindergarten.
"There are many states that have kindergarten today, and they still struggle," Woodard said. "It's being touted as a silver bullet, and it's just not."
Woodard said some school districts are pleased about the all-day kindergarten funding, but others would prefer using the money for different priorities. He said local school leaders should have been given more flexibility to use the funding as they see fit.