School funding bump pleases many, but not the strings attached

Math student
A young student looks closely at a math exam.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The biggest portion of Gov. Pawlenty's new education spending -- nearly $300 million -- ould go on the basic formula that schools get for each student. That amount would increase from just under $5,000 per student to nearly $5,200.

In addition, Pawlenty is proposing that schools that get at least a three-star rating in reading or math on their school report card could get another funding bump.

"Then they'd be eligible for up to an additional 2 percent on top of that, that could be used for anything other than permanent salary commitments," said Pawlenty. "They can use it for bonuses, staff bonuses, they can use it for technology, they can use it for anything they want."

Eligible schools would get anywhere from $90 to $150 per student, depending on how many schools qualify.

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Sometimes the governor is off on another planet compared to the House Democrats. And this year ... he has hit on the big bills that we're going to be hitting on too.

Pawlenty also wants to spend $75 million on high schools that agree to provide more rigorous courses and programs that prepare students for post-secondary education. And he's proposing that the state spend $29 million on scholarships for low-income children to attend preschool programs that prepare them for kindergarten.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says the governor wants to make sure the money going to K-12 and early childhood education is spent wisely.

"We expect to measure results. We need to have accountability, and too often, we put a lot of money into things, but we don't go back and look at effective they are," said Seagren.

Legislators who chair the education budget committees at the Capitol were cautiously pleased with the governor's budget overall.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says she's glad Pawlenty is recommending a significant funding boost for schools.

"Sometimes the governor is off on another planet compared to the House Democrats. And this year, except for some very minute items, he has hit on the big bills that we're going to be hitting on too," said Greiling.

Greiling says the education bill that passes the House will likely spend more than the governor. She has some concerns about Pawlenty's proposal to boost funding for high-performing schools. Greiling says that would reward schools that are already doing well, when she believes the state should help schools that are struggling to close the achievement gap between different groups of students.

The chair of the Senate E-12 budget division, DFLer LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer, says Pawlenty's budget doesn't help districts with the rising cost of special education. He says he'll push for an education bill that funds all school districts, instead of singling out certain schools for extra money.

"I'm kind of a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I like to fund our schools, and require good outcomes," said Stumpf. "I would look for a bill that comes out of the Senate to continue to push for good accountability, but then put some resources there, instead of a lot of new programs that would be a smattering of districts that get grants here, and a smattering of districts that get grants there."

One Minnesota parent who is closely watching education funding at the Capitol says Pawlenty's budget doesn't do enough for schools. Julie Schultz Brown, who has three children in St. Paul schools, says if Pawlenty wants to overhaul high schools, he'll need to go beyond his 3R proposal.

Schultz says he should see the needs of an urban high school like St. Paul's Central, which her daughter attends.

"Yeah, we should have more rigor. Absolutely. But then $75 million? OK, but has he been to Central? And Central's not even a 'bad school,'" Schultz said. "The computers are an atrocity. How are they supposed to get ready for careers and move on to the workforce when most everything they do will have to do with computers?"

As the Legislature begins to scrutinize Pawlenty's budget proposal, one key area of debate will be early childhood funding. Legislative leaders say they support all-day kindergarten, which isn't included in Pawlenty's budget.