When Minnesota's next governor addresses the state's $5.8 billion budget deficit, a big part of the task will be determining how much to spend on primary and secondary education, which takes up 40 percent of the budget.
State lawmakers approved $13.8 billion for kindergarten through grade 12 for the ongoing two-year budget cycle.
For the biennium that will start under a new governor next year, Republican nominee Tom Emmer wants to keep K-12 funding at that same level.
"We can't keep spending what we want to spend," Emmer said. "We must spend what we have to spend, and more importantly we have to allocate the existing resources more appropriately."
For example, Emmer points to $700 million spent to close the statistical academic achievement gap between white students and students of color. Noting that the gap still exists, Emmer wants to see if that money should be spent differently.
"We can't keep spending what we want to spend."
Emmer said his budget holds education harmless by keeping funding flat. His opponents disagree with the notion that flat funding is harmless, when costs are rising.
Democratic nominee Mark Dayton and Independence Party nominee Tom Horner are both promising to increase spending on K-12 education, and to pay for it with higher taxes. Dayton wants to raise the income tax on the state's highest earners; Horner wants to lower the state sales tax rate but apply the tax to more items, creating a net gain.
Dayton said Emmer's so-called harmless spending ignores an important fact: There will be 20,000 more students attending schools in Minnesota by the end of the next budget cycle. As a result, Dayton said, flat funding will mean less is spent per pupil.
Horner, meanwhile, has spent his campaign trying to frame the issue differently.
"Both gentlemen start with the premise of 'how much.' Representative Emmer would say a lot less, and Senator Dayton would say a lot more," Horner said. "We need to start asking the question, 'what for?' What do we need to achieve as outcomes? What's important for the state of Minnesota?"
Horner has said his budget would include $120 million more for all education spending -- including early childhood education -- to ensure more children arrive at kindergarten with enough basic knowledge to start school.
But all three candidates have pledged to spend more on early childhood education. Emmer said he'd do so by reducing other state child care funding instead of raising taxes.
Another issue that school leaders across Minnesota are tuned into on the education spending front is when each candidate would send school districts $1.4 billion in delayed payments.
The state made the accounting measure, called a "shift," this year to balance its own books by holding back some spending that had been budgeted this biennium for schools.
All three candidates have pledged to restore the funding, but Emmer and Horner say they would not do so in their first two-year budget cycle as the state cannot afford it. They'd wait until 2013 at the earliest.
Dayton, however has said he would pay back the shift starting next year.
"We owe the schools that money; the law says it needs to be repaid," said Dayton. "I think we should honor the law, and the principle that the state will get its financial house in order so local governments -- cities, counties, townships and school districts -- can know they can depend on the state's financial commitments," Dayton said.
But Dayton has also said in recent weeks that he might not be able to pay back the entire shift in his first two years. If he can't find more savings to balance his budget, he said he'd only restore part of the funding at first.
Dayton claims paying back even part of the shift would represent new funding for schools, but that's a fiscal gray area. School leaders point out that the delayed payments represent a loan to the state. They say that restoring the funding would only fulfill a previous promise.
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