Walz calls on Minnesota to meet needs of 'the whole child'

Gov. Walz state budget proposal
Gov. Tim Walz presented his first state budget and addressed its priorities on Tuesday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Initial budget proposals like the one Gov. Tim Walz laid out Tuesday are more like a wish list than a promise of what's to come. And at the top of Walz's wish list is a lot of funding for Minnesota schools.

"The first priority this budget tackles is education," said the Democratic governor. "Minnesotans know investing in our children is investing in the future. As a former teacher, I've seen firsthand the power of education for a child."

But before Walz's wish list can become reality, he needs to persuade lawmakers in the divided Minnesota Legislature to approve his plan.

Walz's predecessor, Mark Dayton, put a lot of money in education, pumping an additional $2 billion into education during his time as governor. Walz seems to be picking up that mantle. He proposes increasing the general education basic formula by a total of 5 percent over the next two years. That will translate to an additional $319 per student by 2021.

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Some of the initiatives Walz supports include $26 million for school safety, $77 million to keep special education costs from rising, and grants to attract and retain racially diverse teachers. There's also $8 million in funding for full-service community schools — a model that brings health care and other non-education services into school buildings.

"We must meet the needs of the whole child to spur academic growth and opportunity," Walz said. "As a classroom teacher, I know that a student who is hungry won't learn geography, a student who needs glasses can't read the whiteboard, and a student who had to sleep in the car the night before certainly won't ace their math test."

There is a lot of support for Walz's plans to increase the student funding formula.

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said public school board members were excited about getting more money for students, more money for special education and more money for school safety.

"He stuck by his word in terms of investing in those things that are important to Minnesotans," he said. "And we know investing in our public school students is really important, and so we were pleased with his first budget."

Walz differs from Dayton in at least one significant way: Where Dayton pushed hard for universal pre-K for Minnesota 4-year-olds, Walz is not going quite so far. His budget keeps funding in place for 4,000 4-year-olds to attend preschool in 140 schools. But at least for now, he's not asking for more money to add another grade level to Minnesota's public school system.

Denise Specht, president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, said she's pleased with Walz's education spending proposals. But she wishes there were more money for pre-K.

"We have waiting lists for pre-K all over the state," she said. "But the good news is we're going to preserve the funding for those 4,000 children. And I hope that we can take a look at this the next time because there is a demand out there."

Carla Nelson, a Republican from Rochester, Minn., who heads the Senate E-12 Policy and Finance Committee, has different priorities for education spending. Like Walz, she's a former teacher.

"We all, I believe, share a commitment to investing in the next generation of Minnesotans," she said. "And I definitely appreciate his focus on E-12 education. However, it's unaffordable."

Minnesota already spends more taxpayer money on K-12 education than on any other area of the budget. Walz's overall boost in education spending would come to about $733 million — roughly 5 percent more than current funding.

The governor and Legislature must agree to a two-year budget before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.