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Senate passes education finance bill amid roll call drama (update)

Charley Shaw//April 26, 2013//

Senate passes education finance bill amid roll call drama (update)

Charley Shaw//April 26, 2013//

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“We know the importance of early learning for children,” said Senate K-12 division chairman Chuck Wiger. “Every child in Minnesota, regardless of their zip code, deserves the same opportunity to enroll in all-day (kindergarten).” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Following an eight-hour floor debate Thursday, the state Senate passed a $15.7 billion bill to fund Minnesota’s K-12 schools for the next two years. Two days after the DFL-controlled House passed a bill in which 10 Republicans joined all DFLers in support, the DFL-controlled Senate’s bill faced unanimous Republican opposition as well as three DFL defectors, but prevailed in a 35-28 vote.

The roll call on final passage was particularly acrimonious. Senate President Sandy Pappas opened the board immediately after Senate K-12 division chairman Chuck Wiger delivered his closing remarks. In doing so, she refused to recognize Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who had been standing while Wiger delivered his speech and wanted to reply to some of his statements. Republicans cried foul and refused to vote for several minutes before finally registering their opposition.

The bill increases funding for education by $356 million for the 2014-15 budget period, a target that’s roughly $200 million lower than in the House’s companion bill. The Senate provides for a $52 per student increase in the basic education formula; the House figure is $209 per student. But the Senate mirrors the House in providing $130 million for all-day kindergarten and $44 million in early childhood scholarships.

“We know the importance of early learning for children. It is proven. Every child in Minnesota, regardless of their zip code, deserves the same opportunity to enroll in all-day K,” Wiger said.

The three DFLers who voted against the bill were Sens. Chris EatonJohn Hoffman and Ann Rest.

“Obviously nothing’s perfect. But there are a lot of good things here,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer.

A significant part of the new spending is designed to provide greater statewide equality in the property taxes that homeowners pay for schools. DFLers said the property tax measures will help protect seniors and other people of modest means from disproportionately high property tax burdens to pay for schools in their areas. But Republicans complained that the spending on property tax relief comes at the expense of classroom funding.

“We spend $130 million in the K-12 bill on property taxes,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge. “Now that’s not a bad thing. But it does nothing for educational quality.”

Both the House and Senate bills eliminate the Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma (GRAD) standard that requires students to high-stakes tests on reading, writing and math in order to graduate. State and local education officials made recommendations last year in response to the high number of students failing the tests, which were first imposed in 2008.

The proposal would switch to a suite of ACT tests that determine a student’s progress while eliminating the so-called “cut score” that determines whether a student graduates or is held back. Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, who spearheaded the GRAD elimination proposal in the Senate, said the change will be fairer to students and prevent teachers from needing to “teach to the test.”

“We talk about four years of high school,” Dahle said, “but yet we are going to determine whether the student gets the diploma on that one 50-minute bubble test they take on this one particular day … and they don’t get a diploma. What are the social costs for those students?”

Business-backed lobbying groups have opposed the GRAD elimination. As the Senate bill moved toward the floor, the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses aired radio and TV ads that oppose removing GRAD standards. An amendment was offered during floor debate to require minimum proficiency testing for graduation.

Petersen contended that students will be tested when they get to college to determine whether they need remedial courses. He said testing that determines if they are ready to move into higher education will save students time and money.

“We can actually spare those students the remedial coursework necessary if we would just set a standard and define what it means to graduate from high school,” Petersen said.

Petersen’s amendment failed 34-31. The trio of DFL senators who voted in favor of the amendment — Terri BonoffRon Latz and Ann Rest — all represent suburbs west of Minneapolis.

The Senate’s bill differs significantly from the House with regard to paying back the $800 million-plus that the state owes to schools from previous K-12 aid shifts. The House puts a temporary surcharge on couples with incomes over $500,000 to pay off the shift balance. The Senate included no such proposal, instead relying on future state surpluses to pay back the shift, as provided for under current law. Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, complained that DFLers campaigned last year on repaying the shift and have reneged on that promise.

“This year we have the chance to make the change, make the adjustments that have to be done, and all of a sudden we can’t do it. I’d use a word that starts with an ‘H’ but I don’t think I’d be standing around long,” Osmek said.

An amendment by Nienow to spend money out of the state’s budget reserve to pay down the shift failed 38-26 with Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, joining all DFLers in opposition. An amendment from Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, that would have required a three-fifths majority to pass any future school shifts failed 35-31 despite the fact that DFL Sens. John HoffmanVicki Jensen and Roger Reinert voted with Republicans in support of it. Pratt, Hoffman and Jensen are freshmen senators who served on school boards when the 2011 shift was enacted.

The Senate bill delays the new teacher evaluation system that was supposed to go online in the 2014-15 school year. The teacher evaluation system was passed in 2011 when Republicans controlled the Legislature. Under this year’s bill, teacher evaluation would instead launch in 2015-16.

An amendment to remove the delay failed 34-29. Western Minneapolis suburban Sens. Bonoff, Latz and Melisa Franzen voted in favor of the amendment. The House’s education bill doesn’t delay teacher evaluations.

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