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Student support gets boost in Minnesota's supplemental budget

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School districts will have an opportunity to hire more social workers, counselors and other student support staff with a $12.1 million grant program included in the Legislature's end-of-session spending plan.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, has pushed for the funding for several years. Last year's $95 million proposal didn't make it into the final budget. This year, she scaled back the request to $13.1 million, but the Republican-controlled House countered with a proposal to study the idea without dedicating money.

"The House had a much smaller target than the Senate did for education, and the fact that, I think, in the process of compromise that ours is pretty close to intact — I think it sends an important signal about how much this is valued," Kent said.

Education experts say support staff can be critical to keeping students at risk of dropping out of school on track for graduation. Yet, Minnesota spends less of its education money on student support than any other state, according to the U.S. Census.

Dayton has yet to sign the supplemental funding bill that contains the student support money, but indicated several weeks ago that he wanted it included in the plan for spending the state's budget surplus.

School districts could apply for the money through six-year matching grants and use it to hire licensed staff, including guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses or drug addiction counselors. The state would match district funds one-to-one for four years and then match one-third of district funding for two more years.

Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato, has been lobbying lawmakers for more student support funding. He says the new funding will help reduce a student-to-counselor ratio that's third-worst in the country.

"It's not just $12.1 million, it holds the promise of being $24.2 million when the original appropriation is matched with local funds," he said.

Even with the infusion of new cash, Minnesota is likely to remain at the bottom of the national rankings for student support spending. The state has been there since 2003, a result of local districts deciding to keep more of their money in the classroom as state revenue leveled off.

Districts would have to shift about $75 million a year from current spending — or find new revenue — for Minnesota to get support spending back to where it was in the early 2000s. To hit the current national rate would require about a quarter billion dollars a year in additional support spending.

"We believe when the results begin to come in showing the benefits that these specific funds are able to provide students, that the state and local school districts will see the wisdom in providing additional funding in the long run," Roberts said.