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DFL wants student support funds now, but GOP isn't budging

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Students head to class on the first day of school.
Advocates say the need for more counselors, social workers and other support workers is critical in Minnesota. Here, students are pictured on their way to class on the first day of school at Richfield High School Sept. 2, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

A proposal to boost spending for so-called "student support services" will get a look in final budget negotiations as the end of the legislative session nears.     

Advocates say the need for more counselors, social workers and other support workers is critical in Minnesota. But heading into negotiations, the DFL-controlled Senate and GOP-controlled House are far apart on the issue.   

  The Senate wants to set aside $13.1 million for matching grants to help schools hire more counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses and drug addiction counselors. The House doesn't want any money for the idea so far — its bill calls for studying the proposal and reporting back next year.     

"Most districts are very reticent to have the state put strings to money when we send it out to districts," said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who chairs the House Education Finance committee. "They would rather have the flexibility to choose those services and structure their funding in the way that best suits their student community."  

  Loon says she wants to find out how many districts would use the six-year grants, and whether results would last.  

  State education commissioner Brenda Cassellius says she urged Gov. Mark Dayton to support the Senate plan, which he recently did. Cassellius says grants would be sort of a study to see how big a difference support makes.  

  "We have a really ambitious goal of reaching the graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020, with no student group being below 85 percent, and we've been making some strides toward that, and I think this would be another accelerator to get there," Cassellius said.  

Gov. Mark Dayton talked to a preschool class.
Gov. Mark Dayton and education commissioner Brenda Cassellius talk to a preschool class last spring. Cassellius says she urged Dayton to support a Senate plan boosting fund student support services, which he recently did.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2015 file

  Even $13 million more spent on support staff would not get the state out of its last-place ranking on that measure.    

Experts say support services can be key to closing academic achievement gaps, so it may not be a coincidence that Minnesota is also not on track to meet Cassellius' graduation rate goal.   

  Students of color in Minnesota are less likely to graduate than their peers in almost every other state. The gap is getting better, but progress has been slow.  

  Part of the reason Minnesota spends so little on support is that most funding decisions are made on the local level. When money gets tight, districts may cut support.     

Districts have historically resisted state attempts to dictate how they spend money. Kirk Schneidawind of the state school boards' association says the grants are a good compromise.  

  "In this instance, one of the things that we do like about this opportunity is it doesn't go as far as requiring a ratio, which we know that some districts would have some concerns about," Schneidawind said. "This does provide the flexibility."  

  Schneidawind says districts would always prefer money with no strings attached. But he says in a non-budget year, the grants are a good start.    

"If this does go forward, we will be very clear about what they need to be prepared for down the road," Schneidawind said, "and then they can make an informed decision whether they want to do it or not.  

  Whether school districts participate or not could make a difference for educational equity.     

Schools already have varying levels of support. And if some districts decide not to take — or don't get — grants, those inequities could deepen.   

  Cassellius says she hopes Minnesota's open enrollment policy, that allows students to pick their district, would help correct that disparity.  

  "Parents vote with their feet," she said. "That provides another level of pressure to school boards to access funding and then maximize that funding. And that's why it's so important for parents to get involved, community members to get involved, the philanthropic and nonprofit community to hold school districts to their feet and demand a gold star education for their kids."