Declaring he would follow through on a pledge to make Minnesota an attractive place to raise a family, Gov. Tim Walz announced a key slice of his 2023 budget Tuesday with major spending increases for education, child care and per-child tax credits.
“Our budget will ensure that the opportunities are there to make every single school the very best in the nation and every child to succeed for generations to come,” Walz said as he announced the plan at Adams Spanish Immersion School in St. Paul.
Education was a dominant theme of his reelection campaign, which ended with the DFLer notching a convincing win for a second term. Less than a month after November’s election, he learned the state had a projected $17.6 billion surplus to use when crafting the next budget.
Walz said he was following through on ideas he remembers discussing with colleagues when he was a classroom teacher, specifically touching on the proposal to have the state cover all student meals as a way to boost nutrition and reduce stigma attached to income-connected subsidies.
“I said ‘Well, someday when I'm the governor then we'll fix this and everybody laughed.’ Me included,” Walz said.
Of his plan in whole, he said: “My message to families, to students, to teachers, to support staff is: This is the budget for many of us who taught for decades, this is the budget we're waiting for. This is the transformational moment that can happen.”
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The plan would add 4 percent to the per-pupil school funding formula this year and another 2 percent the following year, automatically tying future spending increases to the inflation rate. Walz also wants to provide free meals to all students and bolster spending for special education.
And Walz proposes creating a child tax credit for families with low income that would amount to $1,000 per child with a maximum credit of $3,000. The credit would apply to families earning $50,000 or less.
The governor’s plan would expand access to existing child care subsidies and tax credits, which he said would reduce costs for 100,000 Minnesota households. He also proposes expanding public pre-K programs to make them available to nearly 25,000 families.
Walz also wants to create a new Department of Children, Youth, and Families to focus state government on the needs of students and families. The Department of Education would still oversee schools, Walz said, but some functions from the Department of Human Services (DHS), Education and the Corrections Department would go to the new agency.
“We believe this keeps a better eye on things. It lets us have better accountability,” Walz said, adding that there are too many blind spots in the current arrangement, particularly with the size and scope of DHS now.
The plan totals $5.2 billion for the upcoming two-year budget cycle and $12 billion for the next four years.
The school funding increase alone amounts to more than $700 million for the current two-year cycle and more than $1.4 billion over the next two years. The free meals portion costs $389 million this biennium and $424 million in the next. Walz is also calling for $158 million to improve mental health services for youth and students.
It’s just part of a budget that the DFL governor will lay out over the next week, and that the Legislature will spend most of the next four months debating.
“The really great thing is that we think a lot alike,” said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, who chairs the Senate’s Education Finance Committee.
Unlike the governor though, Kunesh’s agenda includes a $500 million immediate infusion for school districts with tight finances so they don’t have to wait until a new budget is enacted.
“Those dollars that are in the general fund could be used for a more robust, well-rounded education for the rest of the year, and also give the school districts a moment of relief,” Kunesh said.
Walz didn’t commit to that, but there’s still plenty of overlap in their education priorities.
Republicans weren’t as pleased with the Walz plans. They say too much money would go to a status quo system and toward bureaucracy in the creation of a new cabinet-level agency.
“What the governor is putting out is pie in the sky,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, the top Republican on the House Education Finance Committee. “But what we're seeing in reality with the majority party is a focus on mandates and away from reading and closing the achievement gap. And that's where I think we should be talking right now.”
House Education Finance Chair Cheryl Youakim said lifting kids out of poverty is essential to improving achievement.
“Kids don't come in pieces into our schools,” said Youakim, a Hopkins DFLer. “If somebody's coming in with food insecurity, and hungry, it's really hard to concentrate on math. And if somebody doesn't know they’re going to sleep at night, it's really hard to concentrate on reading.”
Like Walz, Youakim didn’t commit to a quickly passed school aid bill, but she said school leaders and parents can rest assured a robust aid package for the long term will pass.
“Before we leave this building at the end of session, they know that they have stability in their budgets, and they have something to look forward to and balance your budgets moving forward,” Youakim said.