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Minnesota GOP and DFL nearly a billion dollars apart on education spending

Student Abdulaziz Mohamed, left, speaks to, from second left, Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker and Gov. Tim Walz during an education roundtable at Stillwater High School on April 10, 2019. Christopher Magan / Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — It takes up nearly half the state’s general fund budget and is typically one of the last things lawmakers agree on before wrapping up their work at the Legislature.

Education spending — on public schools from preschool to postsecondary — accounts for $22 billion of the state’s current two-year, $45.5 billion budget. Minnesota school districts, colleges and universities educate more than 1 million students each year.

In a state with one of the nation’s most persistent academic achievement gaps for students of color, state lawmakers generally agree that improving public schools is key to Minnesota’s future success and economic prosperity.

The scene at Stillwater High School this week was a familiar one: a bipartisan group of lawmakers touring the school and visiting classrooms to highlight unique programs and hear directly from students and teachers about the best ways to improve schools.

“We are in agreement on the outcomes,” Gov. Tim Walz said. “How we get there is a fair and debatable part of our process.”

Nearly every year there are big differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to how much new taxpayer money should be dedicated to education.

This is year is no different. That gap is almost a billion dollars.

• House Democrats are proposing as much as $1.2 billion in new spending.

• Senate Republicans have offered a $307 million increase.

• Walz has proposed $882 million in new money.

Those increases are on top of the more than $700 million the education budget is expected to increase because of growing enrollment and existing programs if lawmakers do nothing new.

“We do agree on the outcomes,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, who visited the school in her district with the governor. “And (while) we will probably still be disagreeing and going back and forth over the next six weeks, we’ll get there.”

The disagreements over education funding between Democrats and Republicans are complex.

Democrats prefer generous new spending, often aimed at particular programs, to help schools meet the growing needs of students. They say state help is essential to ensure all students have equal and equitable opportunities.

Republicans want more modest spending increases paired with reforms and flexibility that help local officials focus on programs that work best for their districts. They argue state funds should be a baseline allowing local taxpayers to approve unique investments.

Here’s a look at the biggest differences between the two parties’ proposals for education in the next state budget:

Students

One of the largest parts of the public school budget is the per-pupil funding formula that currently provides districts with $6,312 for each student. Schools have flexibility on how to spend that money, and it is typically used for day-to-day expenses like teachers’ salaries.

School leaders have long tried to convince the Legislature to tie the formula to inflation in hopes of avoiding the biennial debate about spending. Lawmakers have mostly balked at the idea because of the cost and the volatility that often surround state revenue collections.

This year, House Democrats want to increase the per-pupil funding formula by 3 percent in 2020 and 2 percent in 2021. Doing so will cost $520 million over the next two years.

Senate Republicans have proposed a 0.5 percent increase for each of the next two years that would cost $95 million in the next biennial budget.

DFLers also want to spend up to $90 million to help districts afford the growing cost of educating students with special needs.

Special education mandates are based on state and federal regulations, and those governments are supposed to cover a large part of the cost. However, they’ve never met the funding promised, and school districts spent more than $800 million last year to fill the gap.

Republicans haven’t proposed new funding to help districts with special education costs, but they continue to work to reduce paperwork and other time-consuming tasks with hopes it will reduce costs and increase the time teachers spend with students.

Higher education

Lawmakers also want to increase state aid to colleges and universities but again are divided over the best way to do it.

Keeping student debt in check is a key overall goal. Minnesotans now have more than $27 billion in educational loan debts, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The DFL proposal includes more than $300 million in new spending. It would be used to pay for a tuition freeze at two- and four-year state colleges and universities and new resources for scholarship and grant programs.

Republicans also want to increase aid to needy students. They’ve proposed $100 million in new higher education spending that they say will hold tuition increase to inflation.

Teachers

One of the biggest challenges facing Minnesota’s teaching workforce is not directly related to funding. The state’s educators are more than 95 percent white while the student population continues to diversify. Thirty-five percent of pupils are now students of color.

Both parties support spending new money on programs to recruit and retain teachers of color. There is also a focus on helping teacher aids and other staffers who want to become teachers get licensed.

One potentially contentious policy debate could complicate those efforts.

House Democrats want to update teacher licensing rules to close what they see as a loophole that would allow people without formal training to eventually earn a permanent teaching license. The provision was opposed by teachers union leaders when it was included in the licensing overhaul that was approved in 2017.

Republicans and education reform advocates oppose the change. They want to give the new licensing system time to work and fear changes will result in teachers of color being forced from the classroom.

Taxpayers

However lawmakers decide to spend new state money on education, it has to come from somewhere. The state currently is projecting a $1 billion budget surplus, but that money quickly gets eaten up by future inflationary expenses.

Republicans say their education investments are modest because they want state government to live within its means. They’ve vowed not to raise taxes to pay for new spending.

Democrats want to raise $1.2 billion in new tax revenues to pay for additional education funding and other priorities. To raise the new money, they’re saying corporations and the wealthy need to pay more in taxes.

To come to an agreement on an education budget the two sides will have to meet somewhere in the middle. To finish on time, they have to find common ground by May 20, otherwise the existing budget expires June 30 and government could shut down.