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Incremental change, ‘lackluster’ year: Compromises all around in final Minnesota education budget

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle held up the four of the biggest funding areas – general and special education aid, preschool, and school safety grants – as victories, even though each made significant concessions to reach a deal.

Gov. Tim Walz
During the budget impasse last week, Gov. Tim Walz made a brief but combative appearance at a rotunda rally sponsored by Education Minnesota, saying at one point that he didn’t recall hearing voters ask him to “negotiate away our future to give tax breaks to millionaires.”
As hope of a gas tax and other revenue increases evaporated in negotiations, advocates who spent the legislative session lobbying for leaps in education spending had to settle for a final budget described as incremental. They used the lull at the Capitol last week ahead of the special session to sort through what, exactly, was left in the education bill after leaders stepped in to make the final call. At a pair of information meetings held by the House and Senate education committees, those advocates took one last chance to say their piece.

Paul Spies, head of the legislative action team with the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers, skipped the usual offering of thanks and congratulations to legislators on securing substantial funding for general and special education aid for the next two years. He was too frustrated.

A suite of coalition-backed proposals got a little more than a tenth of the $80 million in funding outlined in the original bill introduced this session, and most of that was base-level funding for existing programs. Of the $543 million in new E-12 spending, the bill includes just $2.5 million in new funding for efforts that the coalition – which unites education advocates often at odds with one another – says would improve outcomes for students of color.

“We started the session with hope. Today, I’m here devastated and disillusioned,” Spies told legislators. “Crumbs won’t feed starving children. We have to do more.”

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The education budget bill was among the last to come up in each chamber early Saturday morning during the 21-hour special session. It passed the Senate unanimously, 67-0, and cleared the House 112-13. It excluded a number of policies, not all of them controversial. With a more modest bump in spending than DFLers wanted, funding for programs their allies wanted to see enacted was cut in the final version. In all, it spends $20.1 billion on education over the next two years.

It was a lackluster year, Josh Crosson, senior policy director with EdAllies, told MinnPost. “[Lawmakers] avoided making necessary improvements to our education system. It’s that kind of transformational change that our students need, especially our most underserved students. I think, all in all, the direction was more of the same.”

Victories and compromises in spending plan

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle held up the four of the biggest funding areas – general and special education aid, preschool, and school safety grants – as victories, even though each made significant concessions to reach a deal.

For example, Gov. Tim Walz and DFL leaders held on to their demand to continue funding 4,000 preschool seats in low-income school districts. The program was set to expire after this year. But the bill only extends that funding for another two years, meaning the issue will come back in 2021.

Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
All sides took credit for the 2 percent increase in general education spending in each of the next two years. Republicans called it “historic.” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker told members of the House education committee Wednesday, “This formula increase that we worked toward, combined with the special education increase, is the largest investment in eight years in formula and special ed increases – in at least eight years.”

School advocates were quick to remind legislators that while 2 percent is better than the 0.5 percent initially proposed by Republicans, it is below the 3 percent annual increase they wanted, and it just keeps up with inflation. The governor and House DFL had proposed a 3 percent increase for 2020 and 2 percent increase for 2021.

Walz succeeded in his quest to chip in enough toward special education over the next two years to prevent schools from dipping further into their general funds to cover rising costs. The cross subsidy costs the average district $820 per student this year, though the cost varies widely throughout the state.

The funding boost comes with some policy changes, as well. The formula for special education funding will include aid to reduce the cross subsidy for school districts by 2.6 percent in 2020 and 6.43 percent in 2021. Other changes to the formula include phasing out a cap on the amount of aid a district can receive from the state, shifting to focus more on current-year costs instead of the level of aid received in previous years, and updating funding rates that take student characteristics into account.

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It also reduces the amount that charter schools or other districts where open-enrolled special education students attend can bill back to the students’ home districts to cover unfunded costs. Previously, home districts would bear 90 percent of those costs for students not attending their schools. That rate will fall to 85 percent in 2020 and 80 percent in 2021. Charter schools will get more special education aid from the state to make up some of the loss.

In the tax bill, legislators gave more aid to property-poor districts that can’t raise as much revenue through property taxes and increased a tax credit for agricultural landowners. Under that tax credit program, the state pays a portion of the property tax ag landowners would pay to their school districts.

Reminder: This was not a policy year

The bill was light on policy – a sore spot for advocates as well as lawmakers, including Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, who chairs the House Education Policy Committee.

“Unfortunately a lot of our policy that might have been differing on both sides, we never really got to in the timeframe,” Youakim said during the House information hearing Wednesday. “We kept hearing the refrain, ‘But it’s not a policy year,’ so I am really looking forward to doing a lot of policy next year.”

State Rep. Cheryl Youakim
State Rep. Cheryl Youakim
It means the 2020 session, which starts in February, will be a bit of a rerun of the debates heard this year. Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, already said as much. “We heard loud and clear this is a budget year, not a policy year,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht told MinnPost. “We believe there are missed opportunities for policy and we do plan to bring those conversations back.”

The bill makes some changes to paperwork requirements for special education teachers. It also encourages school districts to require students to take civics during 11th or 12th grade; requires them to screen for dyslexia; moves Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments as late as possible each year; requires that teacher preparation programs include best practices for teaching reading; and allows students to have and use sunscreen, among other additions and changes. MDE quickly published a list of which of its priorities made it (including the nitty gritty technical changes) and which didn’t.

More than a couple dozen policy measures didn’t make the cut. Some of them were controversial, including changes to the tiered licensure system, new requirements for comprehensive sex education, and tax breaks for individuals who give toward scholarships at private schools.

Changes to the way school districts approach student discipline also weren’t included. A coalition of advocates called Solutions Not Suspensions want lawmakers to require districts to use nonexclusionary practices for nonviolent behavior. They also want to ban the use of suspensions and expulsions for preschool children.

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Students of color are suspended or expelled at higher rates than their white classmates, and that disparity adds to persistent opportunity gaps in Minnesota schools, said Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators For Excellence, which is part of the coalition trying to change discipline practices.

She was disappointed with the proposal being left out at the end, but the coalition will be back. “I am hopeful that it seems as though legislators across both parties are looking at this issue more seriously than in the past.”

A hard sell; coalition hopes dashed

It was clear early in the session that the Increase Teachers of Color Act would be a hard sell at $80 million, especially when the Senate Education Committee didn’t grant a hearing on the bill. But the governor included $16 million toward the mix of new and expanded programs. Then the House allocated $37.4 million.

Combined with bipartisan co-authors of the bills in each chamber, the coalition held on to hope. But in the end, there wasn’t enough money, and it didn’t rank high enough on the priority list.

Denise Specht
Denise Specht
This year’s budget won’t make a difference, Spies said, so the portion of students of color will continue to increase – as it has from 25 percent to about 34 percent over the last decade – while the portion of teachers of color is stuck at 4 percent. Without addressing it, the state doesn’t meet its own standard to provide students with equitable access to effective and diverse teachers.

“Our state has not done enough to address opportunity and achievement gaps,” Spies told legislators.

The E-12 and higher education bills each have provisions that fund parts of the Increase Teachers of Color Act, with a total investment of $11 million. It maintains current funding for teacher shortage loan forgiveness, Grow Your Own teacher preparation, American Indian teacher preparation, and “intro to teaching” concurrent enrollment for high schoolers.

Two existing programs got new money, though less than proposed: $750,000 more per year for student teacher candidate grants, totaling $2.5 million over the biennium; and $99,000 more in 2020 only for another grant program to recruit people of color and American Indians to teacher preparation programs.

One new program puts $750,000 a year toward grants school districts can use to support mentoring and retaining teachers of color.

‘Minor outcomes’

Lawmakers treated the proposal like a menu of options instead of a full-throated assault on the lack of teacher diversity in the state, Violeta Hernández Espinosa, a legislative and policy liaison with the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, told MinnPost.

“We thought we were on track to do some serious work on this issue,” she said. Instead “we have some minor outcomes for our work this session. They won’t move the needle even a little bit.”

The state’s ethnic councils, including the Council on Latino Affairs, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, and the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, back the proposal. It’s an alliance the current leaders haven’t seen before, Hernández Espinosa said. They share a desire to improve the school environment for children in their communities who face some of the worst achievement gaps in the country.

Those gaps have lingered and widened for decades. She said it’s wrong to assume that general education aid or a piecemeal approach will fix it.

“We have this sense of urgency because we see the daily impact on our communities,” she said. “Others have thought of this as a long-term project. It’s hard for me to do that – to think of it as long-term. … We have a significant issue that requires serious investment.”