Minnesota Legislature Agrees On Much of Education Budget

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

There will be some wheeling and dealing in the Minnesota Legislature this year when it comes to the state’s public schools. In an opening offer, House Republicans passed an education policy and spending bill, voting 84-46.

Later this week, Senate Democrats will make their counterproposals when they are supposed to consider legislation that spotlights education. Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), who is chair of the Education Finance Committee, said the House Bill, which was approved with bipartisan support Monday, includes a healthy blend of opinions from members of both political parties.

This week, the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate will be discussing the education bills in which there were substantial mutual agreements.

Both branches of the legislature agree that the state must build a more diverse teacher population, revamp how educators are licensed, make quality early-learning programs available to the most at-risk students, and create benchmarks to measure college readiness on state and national tests.

Both parties are eager to allow some of the state’s rural districts to refinance their current construction debt that they owe to the state. This proposal would allow those districts to save money due to the lower interest rates and would give legislators an additional $55 million to be spent on other needed programs, writes Christopher Magan for the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

But there are differences as well. Republicans want to keep spending in line, and Democrats want more funding in the education realm and other areas of Minnesota’s government.

Don Davis, writing for the Duluth News Tribune, reports that Democratic Governor Mark Dayton wants a $77 million increase in early childhood education, and Senate Democrats are looking for $48 million more. Dayton is also calling for a $56 million increase in higher education dollars, while Senate Democrats want $48 million.

Lawmakers have a constitutionally mandated May 23 date of adjournment, so talks must begin concerning how or whether the existing budget must change. Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) noted that Republicans did not take the opportunity to invest in a more significant way in state schools.

“The education bill should be the most exciting bill of the session because it is really what defines our commitment to the future of our state,” he said. “I have to say this bill is generating no enthusiasm or excitement.”

Democratic members said the proposal was lacking and that more should have been done for the state’s school children since there was a $900 million projected surplus, reports Brian Bakst for Minnesota Public Radio. Most Democrat-Farmer-Labor members agreed.

The comprehensive budget contains new programs such as recruiting and retaining teachers of color in the state’s schools, where currently only 4% of teachers are part of a minority population.

Also included is a proposal for offering teachers loan forgiveness and tuition incentives. Also, there is grant money that could be awarded to paraprofessionals in education who may consider becoming licensed teachers.

Loon explained a measure she sponsored to form a group that would work on school discipline problems, especially after several highly publicized assaults on teachers. One example of a solution would consist of teachers being informed if they were going to have students with a history of violence in their classrooms, states the Star Tribune’s Ricardo Lopez.

“What this bill is more than any other bill is about our priorities,” Thissen said. “The Republicans have clearly made their priority tax cuts for well-connected special interests. The Democrats have made their priority investments in our kids and in our future.”