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The bill will increase the basic funding formula to schools by $234 million, or 3 percent, which Marquart said would break down to more than $300 in new spending per student.

House passes K-12 funding bill

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said investments included in the education bill would help close the state achievement gap. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The House passed the K-12 omnibus funding bill early this morning, approving legislation that will spend $15.6 billion in the next two years, or about 40 percent of state general fund allocations over the biennium. Debate over the bill began late Saturday night and lasted nearly four hours, ending shortly after 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

Author Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, who shepherded the spending package as chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said the bill would accomplish several key goals for the state economy, thanks in part to new investments in kindergarten and early childhood education. Those investments, Marquart said, would go some distance toward improving state literacy rates and closing the achievement gap between the state’s white and minority students. If left unaddressed, state economists have project that the racial disparity in student performance could eventually cost Minnesota up to $5 billion in economic activity per year.

“The thing that this bill does, it says, loud and clear, here and now, that we mean business about closing the achievement gap,” said Marquart.

The conference committee report, which was agreed to late Friday afternoon, represents a compromise between the House and Senate on a variety of positions. Most notably, the bill will increase the basic funding formula to schools by $234 million, or 3 percent, which Marquart said would break down to more than $300 in new spending per student.  The K-12 package pays for optional all-day kindergarten at a cost of $133 million, and contains an additional $40 million worth of new spending on early childhood education funding. That money would go toward an expansion in the availability of student scholarships.

Though Marquart lauded that increase as a step toward narrowing the achievement gap, the House architect of early childhood programs was decidedly less enthusiastic about the compromise that had made it to the floor.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the conference committee had settled on a spending plan that would be less effective than the versions passed in either the House or Senate. As a visibly frustrated Winkler explained on the floor, the Department of Education had approached the conference committee with its plan on how, and how much, to spend on the scholarships — which ultimately made its way into the report. Winkler said the agency’s recommended changes were “substantial and uniformly negative,” and repeatedly expressed his displeasure with the result.

“Unfortunately,” Winkler said, “the bureaucrats won.”

Winkler later said he has requested a meeting with Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to talk through his problems on the issue.

Marquart also touted one major aspect of the overall plan, a $20 million designation aimed at equity and equalization of school district funding, which is not in the education bill, but will instead appear as part of the tax omnibus bill. When Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, asked a series of questions about funding that seemed aimed at metro-area projects, Marquart made reference to the equity funding, and took issue with the line of inquiry.

“I think it’s a very narrow point you’re trying to make here,” Marquart said, arguing that the equalization funding is meant to directly benefit rural districts with smaller property tax bases.

Speaking last in opposition to the bill, Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, the Republican lead on the House Education Finance Committee, faulted the DFL for going back on its promise to pay back the school shift. As agreed upon in the conference committee, the $800-plus million worth of outstanding school shift debt would be paid down through the state’s accumulated budget surplus.

“You’re not paying back the shift,” Woodard said. “All you’re doing is allowing current law [to pay back the shift].”

Marquart said using the surplus to pay down the shift was sufficient, and pointed out that the state had racked up nearly $300 million in surplus revenue over the previous three months. If the revenue forecasts in November of this year or February 2014 found tax revenues lagging, Marquart said, the Legislature could revisit the shift topic and appropriate additional funds.

The bill ultimately passed by a margin of 78-56, with five Republicans — Reps. Jim Abeler, of Anoka, Greg Davids (Preston), Bob Barrett (Lindstrom), Mark Uglem (Champlin) and Dean Urdahl (Grove City) — joining the DFL in voting to pass the committee report. By that time, the Senate had long since adjourned; a note released early this morning indicated that the K-12 bill would be first on the agenda when the Senate floor session convenes at 1:00 p.m.

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