What will school funding look like in Minnesota in 2023?

Students walk by a chalk message that reads "Happy First Day of School"
Encouraging messages written in chalk along the pathway to the school entrance greeted students as they arrived to rejoin their classmates for the first day of school at Richfield High School.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Minnesota Democratic leaders have a new majority in the House and Senate— and say education is a priority in 2023.

What will that look like in practice when it comes to school funding?

Host Cathy Wurzer talked with Becky Dernbach, an education reporter with the Sahan Journal.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Well, with Democrats in control of Minnesota State government-- the governor's office and state legislature-- leaders say education is a priority. But what will that look like in practice when it comes to school funding? Becky Dernbach is on the line right now. She's an education reporter with Sahan Journal. Hey, welcome back, Becky. How have you been?

BECKY DERNBACH: Good, thank you. How have you been?

INTERVIEWER: Good. Thank you. It's been kind of busy, but it's nice to hear your voice again. Say, as you know-- I know you've followed the campaign closely. Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen said on the campaign trail that state funding for public education was like a black hole-- no matter the increases, it's still not enough. Democrats have said they want to fully fund education. Do we know what that means?

BECKY DERNBACH: That's a great question. I think the answer is it means different things to different people. Some people will tell you there is a clear answer. And that answer can be addressed by funding the cross subsidy, which is sort of a wonky term that means-- so special education services and English language learning services are mandated by state and federal law, but they're not fully funded. And so districts end up having to pay out of their general funds to pay for those services.

And it costs a lot. The total is approaching a billion dollars statewide for those services. The districts are pulling from things they might spend on-- anything you could think of-- mental health, arts programming-- to fund this deficit that they're not getting. So when some Democrats say we want to fully fund education, that's what they mean. In some cases, the definition can be a little bit more nebulous.

INTERVIEWER: What have been the biennial increases over the past few years? Do you know?

BECKY DERNBACH: I don't have that off the top of my head. I think the last biennial budget, which is almost two years ago-- it was about 4 and 1/2% over two years. And that was the largest increase in some time. But a lot of education advocates will tell you if you go back decades, the funding has really not kept pace with inflation. And that's even before inflation was such an issue as it is today. And a lot of these costs have just increased a lot-- like the special education and the English language costs have really been rising.

INTERVIEWER: Right. It's been-- and, of course, costs also, I would think, for health care for teachers and staff, and pensions, and that kind of thing.

BECKY DERNBACH: Mm-hmm.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you can't talk about school funding without talking about last spring's Minneapolis teachers strike, right? It lasted three weeks. And it boiled down to a lack of resources, with the teacher's union saying there weren't enough mental health supports, class size caps. Those things cost money. The teachers in the district ended up coming to a contract agreement. Are some of these issues you expect lawmakers to address?

BECKY DERNBACH: House Speaker Melissa Hortman said that the reasons that Minneapolis teachers were on strike were the same things the Democrats have been fighting for for a long time. And they were asking for more staffing, for more mental health support, for-- there were a lot of issues. And so, I think that, for some people, they were aware. These are really issues that are not unique to Minneapolis. They could happen anywhere.

But they're also-- these align with the priorities we want to be funding anyway. And so I think that you may see, for some people, a heightened prioritization. But it's not like this is just in Minneapolis. There are legislators from all over the state who are hearing about really similar needs in their districts.

INTERVIEWER: I'm wondering about the test scores. Obviously, they fell this year, and that was-- a lot was made out of it. Fewer than what-- half of the students are proficient in math? Do you think lawmakers will look at that? And if so-- I don't know. What would be legislation to improve test scores?

BECKY DERNBACH: Yeah. I think that is something they're going to look at. Mary Kunesh, who is a senator from New Brighton, and she's going to be chairing the Education Finance Committee. She told me that was something they would want to be looking at about how to put extra support measures into schools to help get kids back on track.

And Melissa Hortman told me that-- so back on March 6, 2020, there was a day-long symposium with lawmakers about how to bridge opportunity gaps and bridge racial disparities in academic achievement. And, of course, that's before the pandemic, but immediately before the pandemic. And then that work sort of was scuttled because the first COVID case in the state was diagnosed on that same day.

They had really been hoping to spend that session on working to close racial disparities in academic achievement. And they're really hoping to return to that work because we know that these academic issues are not-- we're seeing the test scores. The test score issues exacerbated in the pandemic. But, certainly, the academic disparities predate the pandemic.

INTERVIEWER: What have we touched on so far? Funding, test scores-- teacher retention is huge too, right, recruitment and retention, especially of teachers of color. Do you think that the legislature will get involved in that, or is that something that's left up to local districts, and that's their concern?

BECKY DERNBACH: I think that is something that the legislature wants to prioritize. They have been looking the past couple of years at really increasing funding to recruit and retain teachers of color, tripled funding for those programs in 2021. But some advocates told me at the time that while that was historic, it was not enough. And that was with divided government.

And some of the programs that really did not get the funding that advocates were hoping for were in the higher ed space of scholarships for aspiring teachers of color. I don't know if that's going to be something that Democrats will prioritize with this trifecta. That didn't come up in the conversations I had. But it's certainly an area that advocates hope will improve.

And there are other retention programs, like mentoring and other things, that advocates have been pushing for and that the lawmakers have been trying to fund for a while as well. So I think that those-- there are some opportunities there. Schools also just got a lot of funding from COVID relief packages from Congress. But those funds were one-time funds, and it's hard to spend one-time funds on staffing because your staff, presumably, you want to pay year after year. So I think that there could be some opportunities to provide ongoing Investments that can provide some more stability to districts and staff.

INTERVIEWER: And those COVID funds-- that's all gone now, right? Have districts pretty much spent that money?

BECKY DERNBACH: No. So that needs to be allocated by September 2024. And districts have made plans for it, but they haven't spent it all. I think they're probably on track to spend it. They have plans for it. Those plans can change, but-- yeah, so they're looking at this funding coming to an end in September 2024, which could create a situation without additional funds where some programs that they had funded would have to come to an end. And so I think that's one of many reasons that schools would be enthusiastic about additional funding from the legislature.

INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm. Right. And just briefly, are there specific areas that the COVID money needs to be spent on in a district?

BECKY DERNBACH: It is pretty broad. Something like 20% of the funding needs to be spent on helping kids catch up academically. But districts have a lot of discretion beyond that. Although, as I said, it's hard to spend that money on staffing. And staffing-- although there have been-- districts have come up with different programs to fund additional literacy teachers and tutors and what have you. But staffing is the number one expense in a district. So it's been a lot of money, but just the nature of the one-time funds have made it a little bit complicated for districts in some ways.

INTERVIEWER: Well clearly, you are going to be busy this coming session because there's a lot on your plate as an education reporter. Thanks for running down some of the issues for us.

BECKY DERNBACH: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you.

INTERVIEWER: Becky Dernbach is a reporter with Sahan Journal, an online news outlet covering Minnesota's immigrant and BIPOC communities. You can read more of Becky's work at sahanjournal.com.

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