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Compromise education bill passed by House in special session

By Nick Longworth

After weeks of negotiations over the best approach to reduce the achievement gap, lawmakers passed a compromise bill early Wednesday that they believe Gov. Mark Dayton would ultimately sign.

The result is a proposal that increases overall education funding by nearly $500 million and would shift pre-kindergarten education investments into early learning scholarships and school readiness programs.

Rep. Jenifer Loon explains provisions of the omnibus education finance bill during special session floor debate May 24. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Sponsored by Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) and Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester), the House passed HF2, as amended, 79-54. It now heads to the Senate.

“This bill addresses the needs of students, teachers and it will empower parents,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton).

Spending of $18.75 billion is called for in the 2018-19 biennium, a General Fund base increase of $483 million, or 3.5 percent.

It would increase General Education Basic Formula funding by 2 percent per year increase — an additional $331.7 million in base funding.  Loon said that amounts to $245 per-pupil increase. School officials argued this session a 2 percent increase was necessary to keep up with inflation and rising costs.

Rep. Erin Maye Quade (DFL-Apple Valley) said a 2 percent formula increase is barely inflation. “We need to invest in our schools, not keep the lights on.”

In his veto letter, Dayton said the previous proposal that called for a 1.5 percent increase, “falls well short in delivering the public investment in education that will ensure our children the ability to reach their full potential.”

A crux of contention between earlier legislative proposals and Dayton’s budget request was the approach investing in early education.

The bill would appropriate $117.3 million in combined school readiness and school readiness plus funding as well as $140.4 million for early learning scholarships.

An addition to the new proposal, school readiness plus programs would provide early learning opportunities to 4-year-olds who demonstrate one or more risk factors. A school district or charter school that did not apply to participate in a voluntary pre-k program would be able to apply for funding by July 1, 2017.

“It will be a great new option of resources for schools to apply,” Loon said of the idea brought forth by Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “It was certainly what bridged the gap for an agreement to be reached.”

However, Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) expressed concern that it’s just one-time money.

“We’ll ask school districts to set up programs with no promise that two years from today they’ll have funding for those programs,” he said. “… That sense of urgency we should all feel needs to be built on smart strategies that we commit ourselves to and that we carry through. We don’t have that here. It requires persistence, not one-time money.”

The governor sought a $175 million increase in statewide voluntary pre-kindergarten program funding, which currently receives $25 million in base funding and serves an estimated 3,300 4-year-olds at 74 school districts.

Supporters say scholarship and tax credit funding provides a targeted approach to reach students in need, but opponents contend the move could create a “voucher system" that further perpetuates inequity.

Teacher licensure

The bill contains $136 million over the biennium for the teacher licensure system overhaul implementation and Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board administration. Sponsored by Erickson and Sen. Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake), it was vetoed as a standalone bill during the regular session due in part to a lack of provided funding.

“We have met some of the concerns of the governor, and we’re glad we can help get this passed,” Loon said.

Controversial provisions still in the bill would require school boards to negotiate unrequested leave of absence plans with teacher representatives (and prohibit them from using seniority as a criteria for recall) as well as a $15.1 million appropriation fund the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

Loon said reforms are included to address some findings of a negative legislative audit of the center, including increased reporting requirements.



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