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More funding, all-day K: ‘This is very definitely the education session’

The marquee item at the center is, of course, optional all-day kindergarten for every Minnesota family that wants it.

dayton photo
Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius read to students at Northport Elementary.

Travel back for a moment to the halcyon days of 2010, when Mark Dayton was just a slightly nerdy guy with a passion for public education who wanted to be governor.

Given to long talks about things like assessment models and finance reform, he was not great at getting himself photographed with adorable moppets. But he was exceptionally good at plopping down with principals and teachers and hearing about their needs.

Time and again, he heard pleas for stability. More money would be nice, educators told the governor-to-be, but more than that they’d like predictable revenue streams — and ones that actually were directed at funding the things that needed funding.

This week, when Dayton signs the first E-12 Education Finance bill crafted with the support of his partisans, it’ll be a little bit like an architect signing a rendering he worked long and hard on.

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Every education advocate who spent even five minutes at the Capitol this year wishes that the bill lawmakers passed on Sunday contained more money. But the design is a thing of beauty, virtually all agree.

“From our perspective, this is very definitely the education session,” said Emily Bisek, communications director of Service Employees International Union Local 284. “This is definitely going to help bring the schools back up.

“And we wouldn’t have these investments if it weren’t for the Legislature’s willingness to raise revenues,” she added.

All-day kindergarten for all

The marquee item at the center is, of course, optional all-day kindergarten for every Minnesota family that wants it. It’s a no-brainer that both signals to the folks back home that they are getting something desirable and new for those new taxes.

But it’s also the lynchpin to a cradle-to-career continuum that — while admittedly underfunded — might best be envisioned as a beautifully plumbed building with inadequate water supply. As the reservoirs — or state coffers — become flush, all the right taps will be there, ready to be turned further on.

Right behind all-day-K is a bump on the basic per-pupil revenue formula of $78 million in the first year of the biennium and $80 million in the second. Expressed another way, that’s an increase of 1.5 percent per year.

No, it’s not enough to keep up with the damage done by the cuts of the last decade and by inflation. But it’s accompanied by some structural fixes that should begin to restore rationality to a funding system that most saw as badly broken.

Two levy equalization measures

To that end, note two education levy equalization measures championed by Crosby DFLer Rep. Joe Radinovich, a statewide, uniform general ed levy long-sought by education policymakers and a measure that directs state aid to districts that have either no levy or an anemic one.

(Radinovich, in case you haven’t been keeping score, is the freshman whose willingness to carry not one but two levies and whose pivotal support for same-sex marriage seem likely to earn him the nickname, “That guy from the Cuyuna Range who sticks his neck out.”) 

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Radinovich’s general ed levy proposal didn’t move forward in the House, but Senate DFL leaders, including Education Finance Committee Chair Chuck Wiger of Maplewood, LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer and Rod Skoe of Clearbrook, ensured that it was included in the upper chamber’s final bill.  

Renamed the Student Achievement Levy in the crucible of the conference committee, the gen ed levy provision will raise just $20 million a year in its first three years. But like the aforementioned faucet, it can be increased as Minnesotans begin to feel the effects of property tax relief elsewhere in the budget.

The second, re-dubbed Educational Advancement Revenue, would “buy down” — which is a funny way of saying plump up — local levies of $300 per pupil or less.

In keeping with a state task force-directed overhaul intended to create equity and accountability, some $173 million is directed to integration and achievement-gap-closing activities.

Educators balked at payback

The final bill does not contain a payback of the school-funding shift used to balance the state budget two years ago. While DFLers in the House of Representatives had wanted to use some of the new revenue raised for repayment — thought to be politically popular — educators balked.

Not only were the costs associated with essentially making a big loan fixed and now largely a thing of the past, state law mandates that any budget surplus forecast automatically be used to pay back the shift, which is nearing it customary 90/10 ratio much more quickly than anticipated.

The return to the funding formula of years past and all-day-K make 2013 a great session for charter schools, according to Brian Sweeney of Charter School Partners. “We’re feeling really good this session,” he said.

The cherry on top for the schools in CSP’s network: New, stronger language spelling out charter authorizers’ accountability, which should put more downward pressure on the state’s charter sector to focus on quality.

No more GRAD tests

Other policy measures educators are cheering include an end to the high school exit GRAD tests. Their replacement with a college- and career-readiness program pegged to the university-admission ACT exams is funded. Also included are “tweaked” accountability provisions House DFL authors Carlos Mariani of St. Paul and Paul Marquart of Dilworth had dubbed “the World’s Best Workforce.”

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Similarly, a proposal to postpone the implementation of a statewide system of teacher evaluations by a year did not make the final bill. Language was inserted instead to give evaluators some flexibility in what data is used to fulfill the requirement in state law that 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student outcomes.

There are several other revenue streams educators had wished were bigger but are relieved have been established. There’s $42 million to offset a special-education funding shortfall slated to top $600 million this year.  

There’s $1 million for the creation of a Minnesota Department of Education bullying prevention assistance center that was called for under a separate, sweeping anti-bullying bill that died an ugly, ideological death in the wee hours Monday morning. 

Early-childhood education gets $46 million

And there’s $46 million for early-childhood education, $40 million of it for scholarships. While the sheer number of dollars tops the amount requested by Dayton, it falls far short of what would be required to provide scholarships to all of the low-income families that qualify.

The scholarships were the subject of a late-session disagreement between advocates and state officials. Backers of MinneMinds, the effort to extend a pilot system linking scholarships to the high quality pre-K programming that delivers the most gap-closing bang for the buck had proposed a statewide average cap of $6,000 per recipient. The idea was to account for regional and other cost differences. 

State officials, meanwhile, countered with a request for a fixed $4,000 cap. The conference committee over the weekend compromised on $5,000.

All three amounts are less than high-quality care can cost in many places, leading to fears that kids may stop and start and not reap the hoped-for benefits. But there are some mechanisms geared toward ensuring stability for recipients. Once kids are in the program they stay until kindergarten, for instance, and their siblings can have scholarships, too.

Early in the session some advocates and Capitol Republicans had voiced fears that unless it’s followed by all-day-K and then by elementary-grades programming with an intensive focus on literacy, early ed’s advantages fade.

Most advocates seemed thrilled that early ed — long an arena with no formal place at the political table — is formally recognized as a part of the E-12 continuum with enough funding to continue building a high-quality infrastructure statewide.

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A new line item

“Really it’s a new line item, new to the budget at a time when a lot of players are vying for money,” said Nicholas Banovetz, a member of the MinneMinds executive committee and deputy director of the education reform group MinnCAN. “We feel lucky to have secured $40 million.”

In the end, it’s not the bill the governor proposed. But it’s close. And despite having spent the session stressing that the finding streams nearest to their constituencies would be chopped to make way for more politically expedient efforts, most educators were applauding Monday.

With the exception of the state’s future kindergartners, no one got everything they wanted. But almost everyone was satisfied with the shape of the underlying framework. When the tide rises, most seemed reassured, everyone’s boat will get lifted.