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House K-12 budget draws fire from metro legislators

Briana Bierschbach//March 23, 2011

House K-12 budget draws fire from metro legislators

Briana Bierschbach//March 23, 2011

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo wants to cut cities' desegregation funds, calling it a program that "by all assessments has failed." (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Former Chairwoman Greiling: ‘War on Minneapolis, St. Paul’

On the 2010 campaign trail, many Republican candidates from greater Minnesota hammered constantly on what they called school funding inequities that favored districts in the Twin Cities metro area. For them, the House GOP’s education finance bill represents a triumph and a promise made good.

But Democrats and urban school advocates are outraged. State Rep. Mindy Greiling minced no words when addressing the Republican leadership’s K-12 education budget proposal. “It’s the most politically motivated bill I’ve seen in my 19 years on the House Education Committee,” the DFLer from Roseville said.  She described it as “war on Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

This week Greiling and other DFLers furiously attacked the House schools proposal, which aims to balance the K-12 budget by stripping racial integration funding from DFL strongholds in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth while preserving the funds in suburban and rural districts represented mostly by Republicans. It also puts a cap on special education funding, which lobbyists say will hit first-class cities (with populations over 100,000) and regional centers the hardest. With the money saved from these provisions, the bill increases the per-pupil funding formula for all schools across the state, and gives extra to school districts with 1,000 students or less.

“This is a very partisan bill that’s helping the areas Republicans represent and screwing the heck out of areas represented by Democrats,” Greiling said.

But in the view of Republican Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo, the author of the bill, there is nothing political about getting rid of a program that isn’t working. “The reality is that we have a program that has spent over $1 billion that by all assessments has failed,” he said, referring to a 2005 legislative auditor’s report that found problems with the state’s desegregation program. “This is being replaced with a laser-like focus on student achievement using best model-based practices. We are not funding bureaucracies or systems, we are funding kids.”

In keeping with Republicans’ campaign promise to reduce government spending, the bill also cuts funding from the Minnesota Department of Education, and it has drawn the ire of the DFL-aligned teachers union with a slate of policy proposals that include limits on the collective bargaining rights of teachers and the scrapping of the permanent tenure system in favor of one that would force teachers to re-apply every five years.

The bill passed out of the Education Finance Committee on Tuesday on a 12-7 vote, after two days of public testimony and debate from legislators. “There’s a lot going on in this bill, some of it great, some not so much,” an education lobbyist, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “But one thing’s for sure: There are some old scores being settled here.”

Urban legislators fire back

More than 200 people packed the basement committee hearing room Monday during the first round of public testimony on the budget bill. Onlookers sat in the aisles and stood in the back of the room waiting for their chance to speak. Many spoke in opposition to what they saw as a disproportionate hit to metro-area schools. Among the concerns over the 118-page bill:

  • The proposal eliminates funding set aside to desegregate schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Suburban and rural districts would still receive “innovations funds,” which would be distributed according to a different formula and subject to a wide variety of uses. This would save the state about $25 million a year according to a House staffer, who also noted that the bill originally cut integration funding from all schools.
  • The bill funds vouchers for some low-income students to attend private schools, a step that DFLers say would allow the state’s private schools to choose which students to accept, leaving the public schools to teach the most challenging students.
  • It caps special education funding for a state savings of about $100 million this biennium. Those costs will fall on school districts, as they are barred by federal law from cutting services. Some lobbyists and legislators say this will hit metro-area schools and regional centers the hardest, as they have the highest population of special education students in the state.

The cash saved by some of these provisions are distributed out to all school districts across the state in the bill via a 0.6 percent increase in the per-pupil funding formula for 2012, and a 1 percent increase in 2013. Schools with 1,000 students or fewer will receive extra cash through a small schools provision in the bill.

St. Paul DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani said it’s hard to argue with more education funding across the state, but not at the cost of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. While Mariani conceded that there are problems with the integration funding program, he said it is “immature” for Republicans to cut the program in view of the racial realities in the Twin Cities. “It’s one thing to cut a program back; it’s another to eliminate it completely,” he said. “Not every district and every school is alike. There are real challenges in racial integration in the Twin Cities that you don’t have anywhere else in the state.”

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, compared the attack on DFL strongholds to provisions in other Republican budget bills, including one to change the funding mechanism for the Metropolitan Council, and another to cut local government aid funding for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. “It takes funding from only a few,” she said. “It’s the most egregious political attack I’ve ever seen with taxpayers’ dollars.”

GOP Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton defended the move, saying cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul have had years to desegregate schools and close the achievement gap with the funds, but have done little or nothing to do so. Now, she said, it’s time to spread those dollars out evenly to the rest of the state. Freshman GOP Rep. Branden Petersen said the proposal corrects decades of education funding inequities in Minnesota.

One of the K-12 bill’s biggest winners is the state’s charter schools, which will see about one-third of the extra cash brought to bear to increase funding for small schools. Garofalo argues that much of the increase in charter school funding will be felt in the Twin Cities. “Everyone is talking about funding changes, but there are significant increases in funding for charter schools, the overwhelming majority of which are in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he said.

Bill cuts department, earns ire of teachers unions

Holding true to campaign promises, the bill makes a $6.3 million reduction per year to the Minnesota Department of Education. The cut amounts to a 32 percent reduction for the agency in the next biennium, a House staffer said. There are reductions in other Republican omnibus budget bills that have the potential to increase the cuts to somewhere closer to 40 percent, the source said. “What we want to do is fund the students, not the adults in the central office,” Garofalo said. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the cuts would “decimate” the agency.

The Perpich Center for Arts Education, a DFL-created entity that provides arts education for students across the state, is also taking a hit in the bill. The proposal forces the Golden Valley-based Perpich Center to become a charter school or close within two years, which could save the state about $4.2 million in the 2012-13 biennium.

Kevyn Burger, a spokeswoman for the Perpich Center, said they were not surprised by the cuts, as all state agencies are taking a hit. The proposal is identical to one proposed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty several years ago. Burger argues that the change, however, will switch the school from a statewide model to a community-based model, making it impossible to accommodate students from greater Minnesota.

The proposal also contains significant policy proposals that have been fiercely opposed by the state’s main teachers union, Education Minnesota, which represents 70,000 educators across the state. Provisions in the proposal would limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights, allow school districts to lay off teachers without regard to seniority and require teachers to reapply for tenure every five years.

Downey, who has carried most of the GOP’s reform proposals in the Legislature, said the bill upsets the “union bureaucratic complex that seems to run things in St. Paul,” but benefits the students. DFL Rep. Kathy Brynaert said she was deeply troubled by the provision keeps teachers from striking over pay increases in cases where the proposed raises are commensurate with the overall increase in the state’s funding formula. She called it an “assault on collective bargaining.” Republicans have long sparred with Education Minnesota over proposals like alternative teacher licensure.

Minnesota Association of School Administrators lobbyist Charlie Kyte said there were clear “winners and losers” in the bill, but despite partisan talk, the proposal will likely be molded into something more palatable to DFL legislators in negotiations with Gov. Mark Dayton. “That’s all going to come together over the next two months,” Kyte said.

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