Capitol consensus: More money for schools

Music class
A music class at Rutherford Elementary School in Stillwater, a state-of-the-art school that relies on parent volunteers for extra help in the lunchroom, on the playground and in the classroom.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Rutherford Elementary school in Stillwater is an expansive brick building located next to a development of high-end homes. It's only eight years old, and features a big, circular library full of books and computers. Class sizes are small -- about one teacher for every 25 kids.

But even at a school that seems to have plenty of resources, parents help out by cleaning tables in the lunchroom, watching kids during recess and reading in the classroom.

"I know for myself, and when I speak with other parents, they want good class sizes for their kids," said Stephanie Atkins, who has two of her four children at Rutherford Elementary.

State-of-the-art in Stillwater
Rutherford Elementary School in Stillwater relies on parent volunteers for extra help in the lunchroom, on the playground and in the classroom.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Atkins said she and other parents are happy to volunteer at the school, if it means teachers can focus on teaching.

"They want their teachers to have a reasonable-sized class where they know that the teacher doesn't just teach the kid, but really knows the child, and knows what makes them tick, and knows what their learning styles are," said Atkins.

Atkins is a stay-at-home mom who doesn't like big government. But she does want Minnesota schools to have enough money to successfully educate kids. Atkins plans to go to the Capitol this session to urge legislators to find more money for education.

"Certainly dollars are not the only answer, but they're definitely part of the equation."

"I want my children to walk into school and to feel like it's a happy place, where everyone is working together for the best of student learning," Atkins said. "And certainly dollars are not the only answer, but they're definitely part of the equation."

Atkins likes a proposal put together by P.S. Minnesota, a coalition of statewide education groups and parents. The group wants the Legislature to simplify the state's complex formula for funding education, saying the current method is the product of political compromises over the years. Consultants hired by P.S. Minnesota estimate the state should spend at least $1 billion a year more to adequately fund education.

Key lawmakers say they're interested in studying the P.S. Minnesota proposal, although they say it's no easy task to overhaul the school funding formula. They also say it's unlikely the Legislature will approve $1 billion in new money for schools.

But the new chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said there will be a funding boost for education.

Rep. Mindy Greiling
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, is the new chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"Everybody campaigned on it," said Greiling. "It would mighty odd if we didn't do something big in this area in this funding committee."

Greiling thinks the education cuts pushed by Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans in 2003 were a major factor in Democrats gaining control of the House this election.

Pawlenty didn't cut the basic amount that schools receive for each student, which is close to $5,000. But Pawlenty did reduce funding for early childhood programs, after-school programs and special education -- programs that Greiling said help reduce the achievement gap between students of color and white students.

Pawlenty has offered few hints about the budget he'll propose in late January, although he says he does support a funding increase for K-12 schools. His education commissioner, Alice Seagren, cautions that Pawlenty will want to measure how any new education money will be spent.

"He's going to be interested in accountability," said Seagren. "If you put $1 on the formula, how is it going to educate kids? Are we going to have success with that amount of money that we're putting into education. That's his big question that he's going to keep coming back to everyone."

Aside from the question of money, the Legislature is also likely to debate some contentious education policy issues, from test scores to No Child Left Behind. The teachers union Education Minnesota is renewing its push for a statewide health insurance pool for teachers, and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators has a scaled-back proposal for a longer school year.

While legislative leaders and the governor agree on the importance of education, there will be plenty of disagreement on the best way to fund and improve Minnesota schools.

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