Dayton, legislators add school spending to budget fight

Gov. Mark Dayton talked to a preschool class.
Gov. Mark Dayton and education commissioner Brenda Cassellius visted a a preschool class April 14, 2015 to show support for his universal pre-K plan.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

In their so-far elusive quest for a two-year budget agreement, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders have found a new area to argue about.

Near the top of their priorities for bickering, education has joined health and human services and tax cuts.

Throughout this year's legislative session, Dayton has said he wants the Legislature to send him a budget that includes funding for universal pre-school for four-year-olds. Dayton said last week that he would not sign an education funding bill without it.

"I'm willing to talk about the options there but I want to see universal pre-K," the governor said. "We've seen enormous success with universal kindergarten and I think every child deserves that opportunity."

Dayton wants the state to spend nearly $700 million more in the next two years on early childhood and K-12 education than the state spent the past two years. Senate Democrats have proposed $360 in additional spending, while House Republicans want to increase education funding by $158 million.

Earlier this week a group of parents, teachers and school administrators came to the Capitol to urge lawmakers to spend more of the state's nearly $2 billion surplus on schools. In particular, they want an increase in the amount the state spends for each of the state's 850,000 public school students.

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Kevin Donovan, president of the Minnesota School Boards Association, praised Dayton for dedicating 40 percent of the $1.9 billion surplus to fund early education through grade 12.

But Donovan, also a member of the Mahtomedi School Board, said the state needs to increase per-pupil funding because local school districts already plan to cut positions.

"These stories are repeated time and time again all across the state," Donovan said. "In Mahtomedi, we've cut 10 of the last 11 years. The low-hanging fruit is gone. It's been eaten and now we need to grow again here."

The state already spends 42 percent of its general fund budget on K-12 education.

But the demands for more spending are reaching an audience.

Dayton and the chairs of key House and Senate committees all have said publicly that they want more per pupil funding than the amount they've proposed in their separate budgets.

But how much of an increase and how to finance it are major sticking points.

Senate E-12 Budget Committee Chair Chuck Wiger said he's willing to boost per pupil funding but it will come at the expense of the money Dayton wants for early childhood education. Wiger added, however, that the Senate plan does spend some money on early childhood education.

"He rolls out a full program for universal Pre-K. We can't afford that," said Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. "Our target doesn't even have enough to do that program and we could do nothing else."

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, discussed a bill she authored that addresses evaluation and retention of teachers at public schools in Minnesota at a press conference Feb. 26, 2015 in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

House Education Finance Committee Chair Jenifer Loon also wants to spend more money on the per pupil formula. She said that's what school officials want.

But Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said Dayton's universal pre-K plan has too many costs for schools.

"No one has come forward wanting this proposal. The money that the governor has proposed would provide per pupil funding," Loon said. "It doesn't cover the facilities, it doesn't cover the equipment and the additional transportation costs. There's a lot of unaccounted for expenditures that would fall on local taxpayers and local school districts.

"Unless the governor has found a way to bring the school districts on board, I don't see how that's going to happen."

Instead of universal pre-K, the House plan directs early learning money to disadvantaged children, Loon said.

The session has to end a week from Monday. If the governor and legislators cannot agree on a budget by then, they'll likely have to go to a special session.

Correction (May 9, 2015): An earlier version incorrectly reported the percentage of the state's general fund that is spent on education. The current version is correct.