Minn. K-12 bill ups pupil payments, cuts programs

The Minnesota House passed an education funding bill early Wednesday that increases per-pupil payments to public schools while also making major changes to how schools operate, including ending the current teacher tenure system and banning teacher strikes.

The Republican-sponsored bill passed 68-59 at about 2:45 a.m., after nearly six hours of sometimes contentious debate in which Democrats assured Republicans that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would veto the measure because it contains policy changes he doesn't support.

"There's a lot of great reform in this bill, a lot of stuff we can be proud of."

The bill scraps teacher tenure for the state's K-12 schools in favor of an evaluation-based approach that makes student test scores a major factor. It contains multiple curbs on teacher bargaining rights, including the strike ban. It also creates a system for grading schools that would award additional state funds to those that perform well.

The bill wades into another area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats by granting vouchers to help low-income families at failing public schools pay for private educations. It also eliminates aid aimed at promoting racial integration in Twin Cities schools that have large minority populations, and freezes special education funds.

"There's a lot of great reform in this bill, a lot of stuff we can be proud of," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the bill's sponsor. He said it "puts kids first - no excuses, no exceptions."

House Democrats were uniform in their criticism, saying the bill's cuts and policy changes would fall hardest on poorer districts. "There's a lot of bad and ugly in it," Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said of the bill.

In a letter to Garofalo, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she and Dayton don't support the legislation. She said they hope to find common ground with Republicans but that the bill passed early Wednesday is "inherently harmful to at-risk students."

Cassellius said she and Dayton take issue with the special education freeze, the elimination of racial integration funding and the voucher provision. She wrote that they were troubled by the strike prohibition and the elimination of tenure, and said efforts to promote better teacher performance should be undertaken in a separate bill.

The K-12 education vote in the House capped a long day, night and early morning of debate in both the House and Senate on GOP-assembled budget bills. In addition to the K-12 bill, the House on Tuesday passed bills funding higher education and environment and natural resources programs; the Senate passed budget bills for higher education, environment and natural resources, and judiciary and public safety.

Dayton has said he won't sign any budget bills until he and Republican legislative leaders come to an overall agreement on the level of state taxes and spending to erase a projected $5 billion state budget shortfall. While the Republican plans would avoid a state tax increase, Dayton wants to use an income tax hike on the state's top earners to help cover the shortfall.

The House and Senate higher education packages, while not identical, both slice into aid to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. The Senate bill passed by a vote of 37-27 while the House version passed 69-60.

University of Minnesota officials predicted the Senate bill would cost them about $243 million in state aid, a bigger cut than the House or Dayton sought. Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, warned that the reduction would be "economically devastating" to the university and reverberate throughout the state's economy.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, acknowledged that potential cuts to individual campuses "sound like large amounts of money" but said they were relatively small in relation to the entire campus budgets. Fischbach said the reductions "will not cut so deep that they put the universities out of business," dismissing comments by Democrats that the proposal could force some smaller state schools to close.

The House bill would cut about $320 million from both systems combined. Both the House and Senate higher education bills contain a provision that would ban state funding and some federal funding from being used for human cloning.

Later Wednesday, the Senate planned to take up budget bills for health and human services and state government agencies while the House was scheduled to debate an agriculture budget bill.


Associated Press writers Martiga Lohn and Brian Bakst contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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