Minn. House passes legislation to hold school funding flat

The Minnesota House has passed an education finance bill that would hold state funding for public schools flat over the next two years.

The vote Thursday night was 85-48. With the state facing a $4.6 billion budget deficit, House Democrats say the bill provides dependable funding in difficult times. But Republicans argue that schools need more.

The House K-12 bill maintains current state funding for education by using federal economic stimulus money, as well as delayed payments to school districts and property tax accounting shifts, to offset spending cuts.

DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville, chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Division, said the bill holds the ship steady until the state reaches calmer economic waters. Greiling said the bill lays the groundwork for a new school finance system that would begin ramping up funding levels in 2014.

"Education is something that even in the hard times we should prioritize," Greiling said. "And that's what this bill does. Because building a workforce that's ready to compete in a global economy has always been and must remain a Minnesota priority.

The House bill differs from the Senate's education plan, which passed earlier this month. The Senate bill cuts school funding by more than 3 percent, but there are no accounting shifts. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget provides a slight increase, with the new money tied to school performance. The Republican governor also uses shifts.

But Pawlenty doesn't like the House bill. He sent a four-page letter to Greiling detailing his concerns about the bill's long-range funding commitments and the absence of many of his school-reform initiatives. The governor later told reporters that Democrats simply aren't doing enough to boost student achievement.

"If you look at the discussion around the country around school reform and accountability, adequate funding is important, I don't mean to diminish it," Pawlenty said. "But their bill is devoid of any meaningful reforms, either in the House or Senate, that would substantially, directly impact student learning."

Pawlenty's complaints were echoed on the House floor. Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington said the governor's education proposal is clearly the best option for schools, yet education groups aren't backing it. Garofalo criticized the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota, for standing silent.

"If this is a debate about education funding and about providing the resources to our classrooms, why are we hearing nothing from the most powerful advocacy group in the state?" Garofalo said. "The hypocrisy is unbelievable."

The House education bill also relieves school districts from several costly state mandates. It establishes new accountability and oversight rules for charter schools, and sets new standards for online learning.

The bill also provides a temporary alternative to students who haven't yet passed a statewide test known as the Graduation-Required for Assessment Diploma, or GRAD. But DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul, said accusations that the bill would lower standards are just not true.

"The only thing relative to the GRAD test is it says let's take a timeout on the use of a high stakes consequence relative to the math test," Mariani. "Let's take a time out for five years to give us time to develop a much fairer, better way to measure the achievement of our students.

House members defeated dozens of amendments, including one allowing a pre-Labor Day start of the school year, and another boycotting the federal No Child Left Behind Law. A provision was added to the bill allowing charter school students to participate in extra curricular activities in their resident school districts. But another amendment passed allowing school district students to participate in extra curricular activities at charter schools.

The House also passed a separate budget bill that holds funding at current levels for early childhood education with the help of some federal money.