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Competing priorities: Comparing the DFL, GOP and Walz education budgets

Proposals for new education spending range from $206 million to $900 million. Here’s how the House, Senate and governor’s budgets differ on plans for school funding, student mental health, school safety and early education.

Leaders of House and Senate education finance and policy committees have each said their budget bills reflect their top education priorities.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

With the final competing budget proposals revealed, the choices for how Minnesota will address several pressing education issues are clearer — but there’s still a lot of work in store for lawmakers who need to take three very different targets and pass a budget.

School safety and student mental health, school funding increases, and varied approaches to early childhood education all got attention in spending plans brought by the governor, the House and the Senate. Each plan assigns hundreds of millions of dollars to education-related programs and general funding to school districts, but total new spending ranges from $206 million under the Senate Republicans’ plan to $900 million by the House DFL’s. The governor proposed $718 million in new education funding.

Leaders of House and Senate education finance and policy committees have each said their budget bills reflect their top education priorities.

Senate Committee Chair Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said it was a difficult decision under the constraints of a low target, but she was optimistic that won’t be where the education budget ends up after negotiations between the House and Senate. During a committee hearing on the budget bill, SF 7, she said she looks forward to getting a revised target on May 6.

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Each budget takes into account a lower projected surplus than what lawmakers thought they’d have to work with before the session started in January. Democrats and Republicans are so far apart on education funding because Democrats want to raise the gas tax by 20 cents and stop the health care provider tax from expiring. They also have criticized Republicans for setting low targets for various areas of state spending, including education, because they see it as a negotiating tactic.

“We can’t have this for free,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said during a press conference on the education budget. “If we want a world-class education system that provides opportunity for all kids, we have to pay for it … and we’re not shy about putting the price on the table that it costs to actually do these things.”

School funding

During the 10-day spring break at the Legislature, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker embarked on another statewide education tour to tout Gov. Tim Walz’s plan, which includes a 3 percent general education funding boost for fiscal year 2020 and another 2 percent for 2021. She said school leaders she’s meeting with this week hope to see that hefty increase in the final budget.

“We have a lot of experts in the field telling us what they need,” Ricker told MinnPost, “and I think the focus of our budget work has to be meeting those needs.”

While the House plan also includes the same increases as the governor seeks over the next two years, totaling $521 million, the state Senate plans for much smaller bumps in general education spending. The Senate majority would put $95 million toward 0.5 percent increases each year.

Meadow Lake Elementary School
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Gov. Tim Walz and Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker speaking to students at Meadow Lake Elementary School.
But the Senate does not include any new funding for the special education cross subsidy. The cross subsidy refers to the shortfall between the cost of mandated special education services and funding districts receive from state and federal aid to cover it. Districts subsidize special education with general education dollars received from the state.

Base funding for special education automatically increases each year, but it isn’t enough to keep up with rising costs.

The governor proposes spending $91 million to freeze the cross subsidy for two years. The House would allocate about $118 million. Both plans would include changes to how much of their unfunded special education costs charter schools can bill back to students’ home districts.

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Previously, Nelson said she wanted to tackle the issue, too.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the ranking minority member on the Senate education committee, underlined the missing cross subsidy funding, telling Nelson he hopes they will be able to adopt proposals from the House during negotiations. “This was No. 1 even above formula by many districts,” he told committee members.

Safety and mental health

Each of the three competing budgets seeks to fund school safety and student mental health initiatives, but, as with everything else, their approaches differ. The proposals follow up on efforts last year that didn’t get past Dayton’s end-of-session veto.

To start, Walz proposes spending $17.3 million to increase the safe schools levy from $36 to $41 per pupil for 2020 and to $50 per pupil for 2021 and beyond. This revenue can be used for infrastructure and staffing, Ricker said. But the governor’s plan includes allowing schools to use the revenue for programs, as well.

“Schools are trying to do more and more and with social and emotional learning. … We wanted to expand that school safety money to be allowable for programming as well because our school districts are hungry for it,” Ricker said.

The House and Senate would increase safe schools revenue through a combination of levy and state aid, according to an analysis by Schools for Equity in Education. The House proposes increasing school safety revenue to $45 per student in 2020 through state aid and increasing the levy to $54 per student beginning in 2021 at a cost of $24 million. The Senate would spend $75 million to increase revenue to $38 per student – all through state aid – for 2020-21.

Spending plans include one more common thread on mental health: They would each put more money toward grants that bring mental health services to schools. The governor and the House budget $9.4 million, and the Senate budgets $5 million.

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Fulfilling what they said at the start of the session, DFLers and the governor would fund full-service community schools, which include mental health services for students who can’t afford to access these services and other services outside of school. Walz puts $4 million toward these grants and the House puts $15 million.

The House plan includes funding for several other related grant programs that fund mental health positions and train staff about trauma.

Early education

Walz and House DFLers started the session putting a high priority on preserving 4,000 Voluntary Pre-K seats in districts around the state. Those slots are set to expire at the end of the year if the Legislature doesn’t act.

Keeping those pre-K seats open would cost $47 million.

The Senate version wouldn’t renew any of the Voluntary Pre-K funding, instead putting nearly all of that money (about $45 million) toward Early Learning Scholarships. “That funding is continued. It is continued in a targeted manner with targeted parent scholarships,” Nelson said during committee discussion of the budget bill. She added that sites that benefited from the previous years’ funding presumably have a head start and would be able to compete for the scholarships.

“I believe many parents have already experienced [Voluntary Pre-K] with local public schools. They may decide to use those sites in the future,” she said.

Ricker said districts and the families that attend their schools have come to expect those pre-K slots and have invested in teaching those students. Some have undergone projects to repurpose spaces for these young students. That’s why it was included in the state budget. “The conversion in the Senate — it’s an apples and oranges comparison,” she said. “There is not an indication that those same spots will be there.”

This year’s budget lacks support for former Gov. Mark Dayton’s universal pre-K plan. Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Early Childhood Finance and Policy Committee, said limited resources was an issue. “Within the funding that we had, we felt good about the choice we made,” he said.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Early Childhood Finance and Policy Committee, said limited resources was an issue in the budget.
The House budget includes funding for both Early Learning Scholarships (about $26 million) and Voluntary Pre-K, which Pinto called a “balanced approach” that aims to leverage having multiple funding streams.

“We’re talking about a system in terms of early care and learning that has been underinvested in for decades,” he told MinnPost. “Overall, my feeling at each step has been that this is an area of early childhood that deserves much more attention, much more funding. We all benefit when that happens. Rather than pitting one particular approach against each other, they each have strengths.”