Emmer's education plan holds the line on funding

Tom Emmer
Republican candidate for governor Tom Emmer speaks during a debate sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce in Nisswa, Minn. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer said Friday that as governor he would wait until 2014 to begin transferring $1.4 billion in delayed funding to Minnesota school districts.

Emmer said his first two-year budget would contain $13.8 billion for primary and secondary education - exactly what Minnesota spends right now. That immediately drew criticism from Democratic nominee Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, who say Emmer's plan doesn't do enough.

Emmer, who said his priorities would be job creation and schools, released his education plan before a debate Friday that focused on education issues.

"You can redesign government all you want to make it efficient," he said. "You can make it the best business environment in the world, but if you don't have that next generation to drive that economic engine, we've all lost. So what have committed to? We will hold K-12 funding harmless in the next biennium."

After the debate, Emmer told reporters that while he plans to keep spending at current levels he could change how the funds are allocated. In the past, he has said that it is unfair that some school districts like Minneapolis and St. Paul receive more state money than other districts because they need to teach disadvantaged students.

Emmer's opponents say his plan to "hold education harmless" will still hurt schools. Dayton noted that school expenses are projected to increase by $1 billion in the next budget cycle, so Emmer's plan to hold funding flat would in effect mean cutbacks.

Dayton also said Emmer's decision not to restore school funding the state delayed in an accounting transfer ensures that some districts will be forced to borrow to meet cash flow needs. The Legislature ratified the school funding shift earlier this year to balance the state's budget.

Dayton said he's committed to increasing school funding every year he's in office and will pay back the shift in the coming two-year budget cycle.

"The future of this state depends upon successful education of all of those children from all of those different backgrounds coming in at all different times, and that does mean a commitment of financial resources," Dayton said. "Those who think you can do it with less money should be the first one to come in and take over a public school and prove that that's possible."

School funding is the largest portion of a state budget that is projected to face a $5.8 billion deficit. Dayton proposes raising income taxes on Minnesota's top earners to erase part of the deficit. He has repeatedly criticized Emmer for not outlining how he'd fix the state's budget plan.

Horner said he can't comment on whether Emmer's plan would protect schools because Emmer has outlined few budget specifics.

"A broad statement of principles isn't enough when you're facing a $6 billion shortfall, 20 percent of the state's operating budget," Horner said. "That's going to take tough decisions. We all agree on principles. The devil is in the details. We haven't seen his devil yet."

Horner also would not return delayed funding to schools in the next biennium, but he said the state should pay the inflationary costs for schools that are forced to borrow. Horner said state officials should stop asking "How much?" for schools and start asking "What for?"

Several school superintendents say they hope the next governor will show a strong commitment to school funding. Anoka-Hennepin Schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson said keeping school funding flat without giving schools greater spending flexibility will cause problems for the state's largest school district.

"If we're given the rules that we're given with a lack of federal funding for special ed, with collective bargaining rules, we need more money," Carlson said. "We can't live with the money we're getting over the next three years. Our funding cliff is $100 million. If we lose our next levy, we lose 500 to 700 teachers. That's not something we can live with. We'll dismantle a very good school system if we do that."

Carlson said he'd like to see the state allow school districts to extend previously approved levy increases without voter approval.

Dayton and Horner say they favor the move. Emmer said voters should have to approve extending levies.

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