Minnesota schools will get a sizeable bump in state funding if the Legislature takes the advice of Gov. Mark Dayton, who carved out millions of dollars for preschool and K-12 education in the budget proposal that he unveiled on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, his plan for schools got a largely positive review from majority party members such as Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth), chairman of the House Education Finance committee. “It’s a strong budget that focuses the money on areas that will get the best results,” Marquart said, praising Dayton’s proposed investments in early childhood education and all-day kindergarten.
Republicans were far less enthusiastic, including Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine), the minority lead on the same committee. Despite the tax increases in Dayton’s budget, “He didn’t prioritize paying back the shift,” said Woodard, referring to state aid that lawmakers borrowed from Minnesota schools to balance the current budget.
Lawmakers on the House and Senate education finance committees met Wednesday to review the governor’s proposal with Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
“Investing in our children is investing in all of us,” Cassellius said. “It is not only the morally right thing to do, it is economically in our personal and collective best interest as Minnesotans.”
The governor’s plan would boost school spending by $344 million over two years, an increase of 2.3 percent.
That figure includes $40 million for optional all-day kindergarten, $44 million for scholarships to get more children into preschool or child care, and nearly $125 million to help relieve the burden that local school districts bear in special education costs. It tags $10 million for teacher evaluation and nearly $9 million for instruction of English language learners.
Dayton’s proposal also calls for a $118 million increase in the general education funding formula. In 2014, that would work out to an additional $52 per student, an increase of 1 percent. The following year, the state would maintain the 1 percent increase but restructure the formula in ways that state officials said would simplify it.
Both DFL and Republican House members have called for paying back the “shifted” money that lawmakers borrowed from schools, but the governor’s plan does not call for accelerating the repayment of that aid until 2016-17.
To help balance the budget and pay for new investments, the governor’s overall plan features broader sales taxes and an increase in income taxes for the state’s highest earners. It also includes nearly $1.5 billion in property tax rebates.
Recognizing that Dayton’s plan won’t fly without support from the Legislature, Cassellius repeated the governor’s pledge that his proposal is “the first word, but not the last.”
Legislators had plenty of questions on Wednesday – and some criticism.
Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano) asked why the governor’s budget does not address funding disparities between rural and urban districts that many rural districts say are unfair.
The bottom line, Cassellius replied, is that “We just didn’t have the revenue in the budget at this time, and hopefully we’ll be able to address it in future years.”
“Now is the time to take action,” McDonald insisted. “… It’s truly unfair to the school kids in my district.”
DFLers have concerns, too. While Marquart said after the meeting that he’s “happy overall” with the governor’s proposal, he added that he wishes it did more to close the widening gap between school districts with large and small property tax bases. “I still think we need to look at some property tax equalization,” Marquart said.
- Sarah Lemagie
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