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Education advocates fearing DFL ‘under-reach’

Some top priorities at the beginning of the session now seem in danger of withering on the vine.

Nine-year-old Antoine Burks, Richfield, helps make a point during a MinneMinds early-childhood-education event in the Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 14.
Photo by A.J. Olmscheid/MN Senate Media Services

On Tuesday, state House and Senate committees are expected to release their proposed omnibus education-finance bills. If the fear at the start of the session in some circles was of DFL over-reach, it’s fair to say that right now some sectors of the education community are fretting about under-reach.

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After cranking out omnibus education-policy packages before spring break that seeded intrigue, party leaders in both chambers are remarkably cagey about what the financial portion of the E-12 and K-12 proposals will look like, according to lobbyists.

It’s not the process that’s unusual — that looks a great deal like it has in years past, party leadership notwithstanding. The governor’s E-12 budget puts dollar amounts to specific items, while the House and Senate have set spending targets but not yet said how they propose to carve up the pie.

The Senate proposes to spend $486 million, of which $130 million to $150 million is property-tax relief. With proposed new taxes on uppermost incomes, the House has suggested spending $550 million. Unless the House carries the day, there will be losers at the end of the session.   

Priorities appear to be in danger

What’s confounding some advocates: The governor and the majorities in both chambers are committed to raising revenue and to a wish list that’s years old. Yet some things that were top priorities at the start of the session seem in danger of withering on the vine.

A long-sought early-childhood-education scholarship program appears to be in danger, as are proposals to reimburse districts for integration and achievement-gap activities and to begin reducing the amount of per-pupil funding districts must tap to make up for the drastic underfunding of special education.

Never mind that the DFL controls the Capitol in part because of voter anger over the GOP’s handling of school finance in the last biennium; in their place are a number of things that arguably do less for Minnesota students than they do for officials possibly already anticipating their re-election prospects.

The easiest place to start is back in November, when a task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton finished two years of work crafting a proposed overhaul to the state’s convoluted, irregular and inequitable system of funding. Its recommendations, drastically simplified: Streamline the current funding system, comprising dozens of pots of money dedicated to specific uses, with one that relies on a fairer statewide education levy.

The fine print was literally a couple of feet deep; contained within it were projections about the relatively small up- and down-ticks for property-tax payers in various parts of the state. The group’s collective fear: That when the proposal reached the Capitol, lawmakers would be tempted to tinker.

They shouldn’t, warned Tom Melcher, director of school finance at the state Department of Education. The proposal was so detailed in part to balance potential winners and losers. Lawmakers should think of it as a giant game of Jenga, he said: Remove too many individual planks and it would collapse.

Governor retained most recommendations

In his budget proposal a few weeks later, Dayton removed one giant plank — the return to a uniform statewide levy — but retained the balance. Instead of levy reform, which is devilishly tough to explain, he opted for general property-tax relief.

(There are several general-ed levy bills on the agenda and some murmuring about delivering property-tax relief this year and revisiting them next year, a non-budget year. Check back for further coverage.)

Advocates throughout the education community were universally disappointed that there wasn’t enough money to fund all of their requests, but applauded the governor’s decision to direct modest increases in funding to nearly every sector.

Case in point: Early-childhood education, whose proponents have spent the last decade building near-consensus about its value as a policy priority. Bolstered by research showing that every tax dollar invested returns 16 to the economy, advocates asked lawmakers to eliminate the state’s waiting list for subsidies for low-income families.

First, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty insisted, advocates needed to show that taxpayers would get value for their investment. So a broad coalition that included educators, business leaders and Minnesota’s foundation community spent painstaking years figuring out how to identify high quality and proving that that quality improved outcomes.

Scholarship system devised for needy families

Finally, they devised a system that would provide scholarships to needy families, who would be directed to the most effective programs, as assessed by a Parent Aware ratings system.

Despite GOP backing, a proposal to expand what had been a pilot statewide died a backroom death in the wee hours of the 2011 session at the hands of a small group of social conservatives. Having stressed during the first two years of his administration that early ed is one of his top priorities, Dayton this year proposed partially funding the program.   

In February, Dayton released a $344 million budget proposal including $44 million for pre-K scholarships — a tidy sum compared to years past but far less than the $150 million to $185 million cost to enroll every qualifying Minnesota preschooler.

winkler portrait
Rep. Ryan Winkler

In the House, a bill authored by Rep. Ryan Winkler would fund the entire program, moving all 35,000 children on waiting lists into high-quality programming. In an interview earlier this week, Winkler said he was confident the measure would make it into the omnibus finance bill.

Whether it would survive a subsequent conference is another question. Its Senate companion allocates $185 million. Both face murmurs that the scholarships compete with starved public schools, which are working to provide their own pre-K programs.

Scholarship proponents insist this is not true. Where they exist, district-based programs may tap the revenue stream along with child-care centers, home-based providers, Head Start programs and others. 

All-day kindergarten

When lawmakers left for spring break, however, it appeared that leaders of both chambers were leaning toward spending their money on all-day kindergarten — also a priority for educators and the governor. To spread the increases around, Dayton had proposed reimbursing districts for three-fourths of the cost, an increase from half.

About half of Minnesota kindergarteners are now enrolled in all-day programs, some of them fee-based. Because of this and the fact that no one knows how many families will opt-in to all-day K, it’s not entirely clear how much of each chamber’s spending target this would absorb. As a result, legislative leaders are said to be considering a mechanism by which the money is used first for kindergarten and then for pre-K.

Last week MinneMinds, a coalition organized to push the Legislature to fully fund the scholarships, gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition pleading for full funding. Their argument: The achievement gap is most effectively countered if no child starts behind.

On this there is nearly universal agreement, although educators are also insistent that high-quality early ed needs to be followed by all-day kindergarten and by strong K-3 programming if kids are to be reading by third grade, the stage where literacy becomes absolutely crucial.

The issue of special-ed funding

Another measure that had been a DFL marquee item but now possibly on shaky ground is a proposal to begin directing more money to special education. Schools have never been fully reimbursed for the legally mandated services, and administrators contend that the resulting cross-subsidy — the amount that must be diverted from each student’s state aid to make up the shortfall — is the single biggest financial problem they now confront.

image of map showing varying cross-subsidy growth among school districts

Cross-subsidy growth map

Explore an interactive map showing how much the special education cross-subsidy has grown in Minnesota school districts between 2004 and 2011.

This impression essentially was confirmed last month with the release of a long-anticipated state audit, but lobbyists say discussion of the issue has fallen off both the House and Senate agendas. Tea-leaf readers speculate that this is because putting money toward the cross-subsidy is politically inconvenient as an exercise.

Not only is the problem hard to talk about without reinforcing prejudices that suggest “those kids” are draining resources, the talking point that is most valuable on the campaign trail is being able to say that lawmakers increased general education revenue — even if the truth is the new revenue was diverted elsewhere.

Also causing some nail-biting, an overhauled system for paying for integration and gap-closing programming appears to have made last month’s omnibus policy bills — but at best without a third of its revised funding formula, if not all.

Relatively small though this revenue stream is, it’s adding insult to injury, say advocates. According to a survey conducted last month by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, even if the governor’s budget is fully funded next year schools again face eye-popping shortfalls.

Minneapolis is scrambling to cut $25 million, the Anoka-Hennepin School District $11 million and St. Paul $6 million. Lakeville will have to cut $6 million, Osseo area schools more than $10 million and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan $17 million.

The school-funding shift

Finally, the House proposes to do something education advocates are not asking for: To repay the school-funding shift that was used to balance the current budget in 2011. Not only are the costs associated with the shift already a thing of the past, they argue, the money is nearly repaid thanks to an existing state law that directs surpluses forecast to schools. 

Education policy types had feared that the politically popular payback proposal — lots of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle last year campaigned on it — would draw down the money available for their agendas. House leaders have sidestepped this by paying the money back via a temporary tax on top earners.

The bottom line: There’s a decent chance that come June, Minnesota families will again be stuck wondering the same thing they’ve wondered in recent years. How can their elected representatives rightly argue that they are pouring new money into education even as teachers again face layoffs and classrooms remain stuffed to bursting?