Senate's opening education bid undercuts governorby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Senate Democrats have presented an education spending bill that adds more than $500 million to current spending. The $13.4 billion pre-school-through-high school plan also caps the number of charter schools and freezes spending on teacher performance pay. It would significantly boost funding for students with special needs.
St. Paul, Minn. — The spending package presented in the Senate Education Budget Committee keeps the basic education formula flat, at just about $5,000 per student. But it would pump more than $500 million into programs for developmentally disabled students and other children with special needs. The bill would increase special ed money this year to fund what committee chair Leroy Stumpf says is a responsibility the state has neglected.
"We want to get our funding back on a more steady and stable basis and I think the first thing you do when you try to do that is to pay your bills," he said.
The plan would bring special education funding levels to the point they were before the state appropriation was capped in 2003. That cap required school districts to make up the difference for special ed funding. The cap affects urban schools more acutely because they have a higher proportion of special ed students.
The bill also devotes $110 million to split among school districts that turned to local voters to make up for previous state spending cuts. Overall the Senate bill is $388 million less than the governor's budget proposal, mainly because Pawlenty raises the basic formula.
The new money comes from a combination of surplus funds and program cuts. The plan would snatch $62 million from the Q-Comp program, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's idea to pay teachers according to performance rather than seniority. Stumpf says money would remain for schools currently applying Q-Comp, but notes the lack of participation has left $40 million unused in the current budget. Stumpf calls the governor's plan "over-ambitious."
"I mentioned to him that his program was overly enthusiastic about what they were doing in terms of numbers of districts and in terms of expectations," he said.
Stumpf also proposes a moratorium on new charter schools. The idea has a relatively modest cost savings, but Stumpf says the Legislature needs to look into how charter schools are planned and how they affect traditional institutions.
The Minnesota Association of School Administrators supports the charter school cap. Executive Director Charlie Kyte says it provides time to check how the system is working.
"Many, many of them are very fine schools," he acknowledged. "But there also are too many incidences of poor financial management, poor management, and really shaky structure. And we think a little bit of a pause to make sure all of these charter schools are running well would be a wise thing to do."
Many of the Senate provisions are already on a collision course with divergent priorities with both the House and the governor. House K-12 Finance Committee Chair Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, says she'd rather see a smaller boost for special education.
"They're putting a lot more eggs into that basket than we're going to because we have a lot of other thing we want to do," she said. "To me you have to pay bills back gradually and not just punish the kids that are currently in the school for a bill that took a while to develop."
The House has talked about a three percent per year increase in basic student funding and many members express interest in establishing all day kindergarten. Greiling also says the House is not interested in limiting the number of charter schools.
"If we want to look at accountability to make sure we don't have financial problems with existing charter schools or they're better prepared before they're launched. I'm right there with that. But to cap them... some of us worked hard to uncap them."
Long-time charter school advocate John Schroeder says the provision is "totally unexpected and misguided."
"We're really concerned this is going to stop new chartering schools in its tracks since we're in effect already at the cap of 150 schools that's being proposed here or we will be by next fall," he said.
Schroeder calls it one of the more significant attacks on charter schools in the last 15 years.
Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung says the Senate plan goes backwards on reforms and system improvements.
"Governor Pawelnty does not want to see the state go backwards," he said. "We've been a leader in edcuational reform. Capping charter schools and capping Q-Comp performance pay plan sends the wrong message."
The House education spending plan is scheduled to come out Monday.
- All Things Considered, 03/21/2007, 2:19 a.m.