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Usual education allies could be put at odds as House, Senate prepare to reconcile priorities

Long-sought items on education advocates’ wish lists could end up competing with each other as the session nears an end.

The Legislature gets just as intensely political about this time every year. But there are some unique — and uniquely painful — dynamics at play in 2014.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Senate

If it weren’t for the anxiety dreams, Minnesota’s education advocates might actually be enjoying spring break. After all, the DFL controls both legislative chambers and the executive branch, there’s a budget surplus —  and threats of a final snow flurry notwithstanding, the sun has been out.

Too bad, then, that the final weeks of the session threaten to be the equivalent of a poker marathon in which the players’ hole cards are already on display. 

The Legislature gets just as intensely political about this time every year. But there are some unique — and uniquely painful — dynamics at play in 2014.

Before adjourning for the midsession recess last week, the state House of Representatives and Senate cranked out a quartet of omnibus education policy and finance bills that ticked most major boxes. Yet chances are slender that all of the hard-won initiatives in those bills will survive the conference-committee process. And so those who would be allies in a typical year are likely to find themselves at odds.

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A short review of recent history is in order. When Minnesota last ran budget surpluses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura chose to use the money to underwrite sales-tax rebates. His replacement, Tim Pawlenty, presided over two terms of deficits and cuts.

The sluggish economy persisted during Mark Dayton’s first two years as governor, when the GOP controlled both the House and Senate. In 2013, the notion that schools would be a top beneficiary helped DFL majorities pass modest tax increases.

‘New money’ didn’t close gaps

Yet even as educators roundly applauded the modest “new money” directed to E-12 last year, they politely pointed out that it didn’t come anywhere close to closing the budgetary gaps created by years of freezes and cuts.

As the second year of the biennium, the 2014 Legislature was supposed to be about policy and bonding. But news of a $1.2 billion surplus attracted education wish lists like a set of new Crayolas draws kindergarteners.

There is disagreement between Dayton and lawmakers as to just how many wishes should be granted. As they hammered out their respective omnibus packages, leaders of the House and Senate, Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook, respectively, struck a deal to set aside, in effect, $750 million of the surplus for the next biennium.  

“Now that there’s money, there’s pent-up demand,” said Mary Cecconi, executive director of the grassroots group Parents United. “But spending all of that money wouldn’t be smart.”

One reason: Education is not an arena ripe with opportunities for one-time expenditures. And by passing legislation that has “tails” — ongoing funding streams that will become part of future years’ base expenditures — lawmakers could be setting themselves up.

Spending targets higher in the House

Spending targets — the budgets legislative leaders give committees to play with — for E-12 education were set at $41 million in the Senate and $73 million in the House. Deal notwithstanding, education advocates note, overall House targets, unaltered, would hold back $600 million for the 2015-2016 legislatures.

It’s worth noting that every member of the lower chamber will stand for re-election this fall. There are no Senate races this year.

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The election is one reason the tension is unavoidable, Cecconi added. “There are lots of people who believe, ‘What if we lose the House? We lose our only shot,” she said. “There are those outside of the Capitol who are pushing to fund unmet needs, not knowing if the Democrats will hold the House majority next session.”

Both bills would put $5.4 million into a long-awaited combination of supports for English-language learners, whose numbers mushroomed throughout the state during the years of cutbacks. And each would extend free school lunches to all low-income students, as well as offer a couple of small safety and school-readiness initiatives.

The big differences: The Senate would spend $12 million each on Early Childhood Family Education and on a badly underfunded two-year-old early-ed scholarship program.

By contrast, the House would increase the general fund — the basic financing that follows every child in the state — by $55 million, or 1 percent.

Finally, Dayton’s preferred education spending this year is a mere $3.5 million — just enough to extend free school lunches to all low-income students in the state.

All seen as priorities

So which of these items is most desperately needed? All of them, agree the education advocates who are spending the recess trying to figure out how not to get pitted against one another when conference committees begin meeting next week.

Case in point, the most prevalent fear is that the early-childhood scholarship funds will become the most convenient bargaining chips. Lawmakers last year voted to spend $40 million to fund the program, which directs impoverished families to high-quality programming, in each year of the biennium. While advocates applauded the funds, thousands of families remain on waiting lists, they noted.

Earlier this year, early-ed advocates feared that their proposed funding increase would be stacked against another initiative policymakers have sought for years. Chairs of the House and Senate Education commitees, Rep. Carlos Mariani and Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, have long pursued changes in the way Minnesota approaches its English-language learners (ELL).

The original version of the bill called for extending the number of years of ELL services the state will reimburse schools for from five to seven — the level at which they were funded until a 2003 cut. As the funding discrepancies became clear, Mariani and Torres-Ray backed it down to six, leaving money for other projects.

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The executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD), Scott Croonquist, is of the opinion that lawmakers can spend more of the surplus without laying the groundwork for future shortfalls.

“With a $1.2 billion surplus it’s not unreasonable to provide some supplemental funding on E-12 after what has clearly been a tough decade,” he said. In that light, Croonquist believes, AMSD’s wish list is modest.

Last year lawmakers funded all-day kindergarten and several other worthy programs, he continued, but educators are still in need of unrestricted funds they can use for general needs.

“I’m not in any way critical of what was done last year,” Croonquist said. “But it left them with very little on the [general ed funding] formula. If they had known last year that they would have a surplus this year, they would have put more on the formula.”

The bottom line: Unless the Senate and governor become comfortable with the House’s spending target — something that could happen, if they believe it will help the DFL retain a majority — trade-offs will have to be brokered.