Senate focuses attention on special education as it passes "lean" billby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Senate has overwhelmingly passed an education spending package that would boost funding for special education by nearly $500 million. Senate DFLers say the state has to help schools with their special ed costs before funding new initiatives that Gov. Pawlenty has proposed. But the Senate education plan is leaner than either Gov. Pawlenty's education budget, or a House DFL bill released on Monday
St. Paul, Minn. — Senate DFL leaders have repeatedly said the state needs to pay its bills before spending money on new programs. Their $13.5 billion education budget bill would increase funding for special education by nearly $500 million. That's roughly equal to the annual gap between school districts' special education costs and the amount they receive from the state and federal government.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, says if the state doesn't pay for special ed, school districts will continue to make budget cuts.
"We have to quit telling people that you can reform the high schools, or you can do Q-Comp, or you can do some other bell or whistle without funding the basic enterprise. It's time to fund the basic enterprise," he said.
The Senate bill would freeze spending on Q-Comp, Gov. Pawlenty's initiative for performance pay for teachers. It wouldn't fund most of his other education proposals either, including high school reform and pre-school scholarships for low-income children.
It would not increase the basic amount that schools get for each student, which is around $5,000. The bill also caps the number of charter schools in the state at 150, which would mean no new charter schools beyond those already approved to open.
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairi,e says the cap is unwise.
"Charter schools have proven to be over the last 15 years a very viable attractive alternative to thousands of families in this state," he said during the Senate's floor debate. "And I think that we're doing a huge disservice to those people that have committed their time and effort into this movement by saying, 'we're going to close it down.'"
Hann joined 11 other Senate Republicans in voting against the bill, while 51 senators voted for it. Senate DFL leaders have hinted that another bill may be forthcoming that would pay for new initiatives with new dollars - i.e., a tax increase.
In the House, DFL leaders have already proposed a tax increase to pay for education and other priorities. House Democrats want to increase education spending by more than $900 million over the next two years. Their plan relies on money from raising income taxes on the state's wealthiest residents.
The chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, Roseville DFLer Mindy Greiling, says her bill would boost the per-pupil amount by 3 percent a year, and allow more schools to offer all-day kindergarten. She says the House is being upfront about how it wants to pay for education, while the Senate plan shows the limitations of a budget with no new money.
"I think they're very brave to come out with a plan that is lower than the governor's bill," Greiling said. "Because they are taking the heat to show the public what you can do if you just do nothing."
Greiling added that she hopes Senate DFLers propose a tax increase to pay for education. She says she expects the House and Senate to eventually come together on an education proposal that's better than what Gov. Pawlenty has proposed. Pawlenty's budget would increase the basic per-pupil formula by 2 percent a year, and another 2 percent for high-performing schools.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says the governor also feels strongly that the Legislature should fund his reform proposals.
"The most important thing to Gov. Pawlenty is, are we pushing the envelope in terms of accountability and rigor and results? And so what we're looking for as the Legislature moves forward on education proposals are ways to modernize and re-energize and reinvent our high schools in particular, but the entire system, K-12, top to bottom," the spokesman said.
McClung says the governor remains firmly opposed to a tax increase, and believes that his $34 billion budget proposal is adequate to fund education and other priorities.
- All Things Considered, 03/26/2007, 5:50 p.m.