Politics and Government

GOP wants private school option; Walz, DFL push back

Kids wearing face masks sit at tables in a classroom.
Kindergartners, including Destin Saley (right), space out at tables during class Jan. 19, at Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate and DFL-led House are at odds over how best to educate kids. 

Senate Republicans are holding firm on their proposal to establish education savings accounts. They want to give parents the option of moving a child from public school to private school, with state money following the student.

“This status quo has been going on for too long,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”

Chamberlain has been pushing for a voucher-style program for several years, first as chair of the tax committee and now as the chair of the education committee, but Democrats, including Gov. Tim Walz, oppose the idea. 

All families deserve choice, Chamberlain said.

“These parents and their kids need equal opportunity, and they deserve it through school choice, parental choice. It’s nothing more than that. Parental choice,” Chamberlain said. “Why shouldn’t these parents have the same options that so many others have?” 

Chamberlain and other Republicans blame opposition from Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union, for blocking their plan, and he held a news conference last week outside the union's St. Paul headquarters to emphasize the point.

Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, a longtime educator and the chair of the House Education Committee, is among many opponents of vouchers. The primary obstacle for Republicans is the state constitution, Davnie said, calling the issue a nonstarter.

“The Minnesota Constitution is very clear that we are required to have a uniform system of public schools,” Davnie said, adding that sending state money to private schools is a problem because there would be no public oversight of how that money is spent or how those schools operate.

Davnie said he is also concerned about the impact such a program would have on other students who do not make a move.

“Our responsibility is to build a stronger public education system,” he said. “That’s what we should be focused on, not throwing up our hands and saying ‘The work is too hard. Let’s go to private school vouchers.’ I don’t believe in that.” 

House and Senate negotiators have plenty of money to work with. 

Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman agreed last month to a $525 million increase over the next two years for education spending, but House and Senate negotiators still have several disagreements on where the money should go. 

The percentage increase each year on the basic funding formula and funding for voluntary prekindergarten are among the items unresolved. 

With talks at a standstill, both sides went public this week with their latest offers. At the Capitol, that's usually not a good sign that behind-the-scenes negotiations are going well. If lawmakers and the governor don’t agree on a new two-year state budget by the end of the month, state government will shut down on July 1. 

Walz also opposes vouchers, and an education bill needs his signature to become law. Walz, another former teacher, repeated this week that vouchers are not going to happen. He said he doesn’t want public schools losing any money as they work to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not the time to get into a lot of policy decisions,” Walz said. “So, we are not going to defund our public schools at this time, when especially those hardest hit need them more than ever.”