When Gov. Mark Dayton was a candidate in 2010, he pledged to increase state money for public schools every year — without exceptions or excuses. As he runs for a second term, Dayton, a Democrat, points to his delivery of that funding promise as one of his key accomplishments in the past four years.
• LIVE TONIGHT at 7 p.m.: Dayton, Johnson debate in Moorhead
Education is certain to come up tonight at the second debate between Dayton and his Republican challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. They will meet in the Hansen Theater on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus. Although the two candidates list education among their top priorities, that's where the similarity ends.
In a recent interview, Dayton said he wants to spend more on schools.
"The per-pupil formula is one I'd like to see continue to increase, so we gradually shift the burden off the additional reliance on property taxes, which has dominated education funding over the previous decade," the governor said, "and provide a more stable source through state revenues that are going to keep pace with inflation, and hopefully improve upon that so that schools can do more, and property taxpayers have to carry less of the burden."
Johnson is not willing to make the same pledge and is not making any specific spending promises. But Johnson told reporters last week that funding increases for schools usually come in every two-year budget, regardless of who is governor.
"I would be shocked if we don't increase education funding every biennium, because that's just what we do in Minnesota," Johnson said.
The way Johnson sees it, the current state funding formula has grown too complex, with requirements and weightings that favor specific schools, students and programs. He explained in a recent interview that his goal is to give local school leaders more flexibility in how they spend their state funding.
"The closer we can get to 'a kid is a kid,' the better, knowing that there are obviously some differences in different parts of the state," he said. "But we mandate so much and attach so many strings at the state level to how school districts and schools spend their money. I think we should be going in the other direction." Johnson has been on the defensive lately about his commitment to school funding. Democrats insist that as a state legislator he voted to cut it.
Johnson denies the charge. He points out that overall spending on schools increased every year he was in the Minnesota House. However, he voted in 2003 for a bill that froze the funding formula and made cuts to some programs outside the regular classroom such as Early Childhood and Family Education.
Johnson has frequently criticized Dayton for working too closely with Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union. The Republican nominee claims that relationship prevents needed changes — such as teacher tenure reform — that could help narrow the state's persistent achievement gap.
"I don't say every problem in education has to do with the union, of course not," Johnson said. "But I do think there are areas that we need to make dramatic changes, especially in our failing school districts, and union leaders are unwilling to make those changes, and the governor is unwilling to stand up to them."
On the campaign trail, Dayton has been highlighting last year's funding boosts for all-day kindergarten and early childhood education. He recently told reporters that he thinks those initiatives will make "great strides" toward narrowing the achievement gap. Dayton also accused Johnson of using the issue as "a political weapon" to bash public education.
"That's not what kids that are in disadvantaged situations need," the governor said. "They need all of the adults working cooperative and constructively together to decide what's best for them and to carry that out."
Dayton said much of his education focus in a second term would be on making sure all-day kindergarten and other new initiatives are effectively working throughout the state. He said one new emphasis would be on vocational training in schools, to make sure students are better aware of future career opportunities.