Senate DFLers approve cuts to education funding

Math book
A math book sits on a child's desk.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Today's 37-29 vote advanced the first major finance measure of the session just before lawmakers head home for a holiday break.

Senate Democrats have proposed across-the-board cuts as part of their plan for erasing the state's $4.6 billion budget deficit. They say they favor a "shared sacrifice" approach to solving the state budget deficit.

Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, says it's impossible for education not to participate in that solution when it represents 40 percent of state spending.

Sen. Leroy Stumpf
Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, says it's impossible for the state to solve its $4.6 billion deficit without some cuts to K-12 education funding.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

As chair of the Senate E-12 Education Finance and Policy Division, Stumpf says there's no way to sugarcoat a 3.3 percent reduction in funding.

"We've tried to look at mechanisms to mitigate that. We've tried to look at mandates to relieve some of it. But in the end, budgets are going to be cut, staff will be cut and there will be some real pain out there," said Stumpf.

The budget pain translates into a cut of $273 per student each of the next two years.

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Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, says that would result in about 140 teacher layoffs in the three suburban school districts he represents.

Hann tried unsuccessfully to add a mandatory pay freeze for all school district employees. He also came up short trying to add a requirement for binding arbitration when teacher contract negotiations stall.

Hann says school districts need tools to deal with the impact of the funding cuts.

"Minnesota's sales pitch cannot be that ... taxpayers need to give more but your schools are going to get less."

"You haven't provided any mechanism for school districts to manage through this. You're handing off to them a significant reduction in funds, and saying your only choice here to deal with this is to cut your staff," said Hann. "That's the option you have. And I don't know that that's an acceptable option."

The $13.4 billion Senate bill also covers education policy, with provisions dealing with online learning, student testing and charter school management.

The bill also preserves the alternative pay plan for teachers known as Q-Comp, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's signature education program. Pawlenty wants to expand the program statewide, but some legislators want to end it.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said the money spent on Q-Comp could be better used by all school districts.

"I would say say that the results haven't proven any better test scores for students," said Murphy. "That's inconclusive. I would have to say that the program has marginal or non-existent benefits."

Murphy was among 10 Senate Democrats who joined Republicans in voting against the bill. And few supporters spoke in favor of the measure.

After the floor session, Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said he thought most of his DFL colleagues were holding their noses as they voted for a bad bill.

"Minnesota's message to the world, Minnesota's sales pitch, cannot be that government is going to take more, that taxpayers need to give more but your schools are going to get less. That is a loser message," said Michel.

Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, described the Senate education bill as a leap in the wrong direction.

The Republican governor is proposing a 2.2 percent increase in school funding, with the money tied to achievement.

Democrats in the Minnesota House are proposing flat funding for education. They'll release specifics of their education finance bill next week.

Both the House and the governor would delay some payments to school districts until the second year of the two-year budget cycle.