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Conferees try to build state’s education funding structure, despite ‘mismatched’ House, Senate ‘lumber’

This year, they’re said to be taking mismatched policy items and supposedly rewriting broad chunks of the bills to make a better, “massaged” version.

ramshackle schoolhouse
Like a shack made from mismatched lumber, this year’s omnibus education bills might keep the rain out and be structurally sound, but it’s no architectural wonder.

At midnight Thursday night, the technical deadline came and went for Minnesota lawmakers to have worked out the differences between the omnibus education bills crafted by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Major, big-dollar differences. At about 8 p.m., however, they recessed.

As is characteristic of this stage of the legislative session, set to wrap by Monday, legislators were coming and going from the governor’s office and various hearing rooms with lips pressed firmly together.

The most interesting piece of intelligence wrested from their crabby, cagey ranks by longtime Capitol insiders: Typically, conference committees build a compromise by taking more or less intact planks from each chamber’s bills.

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Imagine a shack made from mismatched lumber: It might keep the rain out and be structurally sound, but it’s no architectural wonder.

This year, conferees are said to be taking mismatched policy items and instead of trying to mash them together are supposedly rewriting broad chunks of the bills to make a better, “massaged” version.

“This legislators, I have to give them a lot of props for this,” said Mary Cecconi, director of the grass-roots advocacy group Parents United. “They have really tried to slice this down the middle.”

Whenever it’s inked, the end product may be more thoughtful than typically is the case. But it likely also will take a little while to analyze because it may contain completely new language.

Indeed the only thing that seems certain is that whatever the final package, it will contain all-day kindergarten—an easy-to-grasp, here’s-what-you-get-for-your-new-taxes “deliverable” legislators in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle can spend the summer talking up to folks back home.

To be decided is whether to spend the House’s target of $550 million or the Senate’s $487 million, whether and how to use tax equalization to drum up some of that new money and whether accountability measures included in the House’s “World’s Greatest Workforce” education reform proposal will stand.

Also at issue: whether a Senate move to delay implementation of statewide teacher evaluations will survive. The effort is said to have lost some traction in recent days when the U.S. Department of Education sent lawmakers a letter warning that Minnesota’s hard-won waiver from compliance with a burdensome, outdated federal accountability system was premised in part on its promise to begin the performance reviews next year.

Also causing a lot of nail biting: A long-sought program to fund pre-K scholarships and ensure that the money is spent on high-quality early-childhood education seemed to have survived an unexpectedly rocky session only to hit an 11th-hour roadblock.

As of Thursday night, the Senate’s four DFL education conferees were said to be under enormous pressure to “cap” individual scholarships. Limiting the dollars a child would be eligible for would allow funding to be extended to more families — something that sounds great at first blush.

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In the eyes of early-ed advocates, this is problematic, however. An inadequate scholarship will mean recipients in pricey locations, like the Twin Cities, may not have enough money to stay in their programs for the full year. The resulting churn works against the gains the quality programming delivers.    

And so what of the big, broad bottom-line?

As disappointed as educators and their advocates are going to be to wake up Monday morning to realize that the Minnesota Miracle is still a thing of the past, lawmakers are disappointed, too.

No matter how they polish and massage in the wee, desperate hours, they’re not going to be able to make up for a decade of inflation and cuts. The best they are likely to do is begin to backfill the $2 billion hole bulldozed a decade ago by former Gov. Jesse Ventura’s “big fix.”