K-12 funding overhaul bill clears Minn. Senate

Spanish classroom at Patrick Henry High
Spanish language classroom at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, in a photo from September 2010.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Grados

The Minnesota Senate has passed a funding bill for public education that would freeze all school employee salaries and prevent teachers from going on strike.

The Republican-backed bill, which passed Thursday on a 36-25 party line vote, makes modest increases in the basic per-pupil funding formula and redirects other funds to an effort to increase reading scores.

K-12 education represents the biggest slice of the state spending pie at roughly 40 percent. But faced with a projected $5 billion budget deficit, Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said she began putting together a two-year spending plan with an expectation of funding remaining flat.

Olson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the tight finances presented an opportunity.

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"It's an opportunity to determine whether what we're doing and how we're spending our money is getting the return that we expect," Olson said.

Olson's bill would increase the per-pupil funding formula by $50 each of the next two years. But two other key categories of funding — special education and compensatory revenue — would be capped, and the integration aid that now goes primarily to urban school districts would be eliminated.

The bill creates a new allocation to districts called literacy incentive aid, which schools must use to improve reading proficiency among third graders.

Olson defended the changes, saying the current system provides additional money to some schools, but racial achievement gaps remain.

"Rather than keeping formulas on automatic pilot when we don't have the resources, or even if we do, that can be a deterrent to making some of the needed changes," Olson said.

Still, some Democrats claim the GOP bill is targeting schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth for big funding cuts. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, argued that the bill ignores the classroom success stories that can be found in those schools.

"This is a potentially devastating impact on school districts that are working very, very hard, and, the truth of the matter is, making progress," Dibble said.

Democrats also raised objections to many of the bill's policy provisions, including those aimed at teachers. In addition to the two-year salary freeze, the bill eliminates teacher tenure and ties half of their future pay raises to student performance. The bill also prohibits teachers from striking over wage issues.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the bill is an attack on teachers.

"This bill eliminates collective bargaining. It sends a chilling message that getting more education isn't worth it," Tomassoni said. "It tells teachers that their experience doesn't count, and sends another terrible message to any new prospective teacher: Don't become a teacher because you'll never get a raise, you'll never be appreciated."

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, defended the freeze, which he said would help local school district officials to prevent layoffs.

"If school boards and administrators are left with more money in the checking account to spread around, they can keep those teachers," Thompson said. "They can keep other employees. So this truly is a jobs bill, and it's a question of retaining people as opposed to having to let them go."

The bill is similar to one the House passed earlier this week. Gov. Mark Dayton has been critical of both versions, and so has his education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius.

Cassellius shared her concerns in a letter sent to Olson prior to the vote. Cassellius wrote that the overall reductions in spending are achieved by what she described as "a disheartening combination of cuts to programs that directly support children with disabilities, poor children and children of color." But Cassellius also said that she and Dayton are "eager to begin discussions" with Olson on another approach.