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Math problem: reconciling school bills

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius says Gov. Mark Dayton wants a 1.5 percent increase to the basic school funding formula for districts. The House bill adds 0.6 percent to the formula, while the Senate would add a 1 percent increase. (File photo)

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius says Gov. Mark Dayton wants a 1.5 percent increase to the basic school funding formula for districts. The House bill adds 0.6 percent to the formula, while the Senate would add a 1 percent increase. (File photo)

Many students might feel compelled to grumble after completion of a difficult assignment, but few have the audacity to heckle the person in charge about the content of their math and language homework. That’s essentially what has begun to take place in the House and Senate, where lawmakers and education leaders are giving some harsh reviews to the two bodies’ respective education funding bills.

Even when the bill author has been sympathetic to his or her accuser, there is only so much that can be done — for now, at least. The bills backed by Senate Democrats and House Republicans, both of which passed their respective education finance committees on Thursday, are so utterly different that neither is likely to hold its current shape after the two sides negotiate in a conference committee.

Those negotiations will be complicated by the fact that the third party at the table, Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, is hardly pleased with either bill’s current form. The DFL governor’s budget and State of the State address made clear that he wants a vast expansion of early childhood education to be his legacy. The Senate bill funds “school readiness” programs at about $70 million, less than a fifth of the total amount Dayton sought for early childhood programs.

The House bill’s amount is lesser still, with $9.5 million set aside for school readiness and another $30 million for early childhood education scholarships. Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, a vocal supporter of those scholarships, said those funds were “one of the areas we didn’t go as far as we’d like, but we’ll get there.”

Even Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, the House Education Finance Committee chair and the omnibus bill’s chief author, stressed repeatedly that the committee had been forced to work within the constraints of a pared-down target imposed by the House Republican caucus.

“We worked very hard with the number allowed,” Loon said. She added: “I don’t know if there’s ever enough dollars to devote.”

The House bill adds 0.6 percent to the basic school funding formula for districts, while the Senate would add a 1 percent increase to the formula. Dayton had previously pushed for the Senate’s figure, but in testimony earlier this week, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said Dayton is now interested in a 1.5 percent increase.

Cassellius communicated the governor’s priorities to both committees, giving terse encouragement to Senate DFLers and unsparing criticism to Republicans in the House, saying that omnibus package “doesn’t appear to be a serious proposal designed to achieve our shared goals.”

Cassellius warned that the House’s smaller increase to the formula would lead to “massive cuts” and “layoffs of many teachers.”

On Thursday, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-Minneapolis, recalled how the DFL’s 2013 education budget had added 2 percent to the formula, and won bipartisan support, with more than 100 “yes” votes on the House floor.

“You’re not going to get 100 votes with this bill,” Mariani said.

Dayton attacked the House’s education budget in a Wednesday press conference, but also condemned the Senate for failing to include early childhood money. In response, Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the Senate Education Finance Committee chair, issued a statement calling attention to its school readiness funding.

At a cost of $70 million for some 40,000 students, Wiger said the line-item was focused on giving schools flexibility, calling it a “balanced” approach that would expand pre-K “in a fiscally sound manner.”

The Senate budget also prioritizes funding for school facilities, which would receive a $43 million boost in that bill; the topic which did not appear in budgets from the House or governor.

Denise Dittrich, testifying on behalf of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said it was “almost kind of sad” the Senate had received a target of $361 million with a surplus of more than $1 billion, and pointed out that its 1 percent formula increase would not keep pace with inflation. Under the DFL’s increase, Dittrich said, class sizes could rise to “high 30s and 40s.”

Both bills were subject to amendments of varying degrees of hostility during Thursday’s hearings. Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, introduced a provision that could put facility spending to a vote, if 15 percent of a school districts’ eligible voters signed a petition to that effect.

Pratt said the measure would add a “nice check” on school boards’ power to spend, but Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, warned it would undermine the authority voters had already given to their elected school board members, and could serve as an invitation to unrelated political organizations.

“Even the petitioning process, this can be wrought with groups that don’t even live in the district, that are totally anti-levy or -tax,” Dahle said, dooming the amendment, which failed on a voice vote.

On the House side, Mariani was harshly critical of a move to delete language that called on districts to “pursue academic achievement and racial and economic integration.” Under the revised clause, districts would be instructed to use funds to “improve the academic achievement of all students and eliminate disparities … among subgroups.”

Mariani said the change would “basically have state of Minnesota walk away from its commitment to racial integration,” adding that he thought it was “unseemly” to alter the law without a more extensive discussion around the topic. His amendment failed on a voice vote, though Loon pledged to work with him and other legislators on the proposed changed before the bill comes up for a House floor vote.

When that next step might occur is still unknown. Both chambers entered Friday with a full docket of committee hearings on the schedule, with some expectations of weekend or early Monday hearings, though neither had scheduled a floor session for the next week.

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