Senate school bill falls between House and Dayton

The Minnesota Senate passed an education finance bill Tuesday that boosts funding for public schools and programs by $300 million over projected spending growth.

Senators voted 38-28 for the $18 billion bill.

The new spending includes an increase in the per pupil allocation to schools of 1.5 percent each of the next two years.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the chair of the Senate E-12 Finance Committee, said her bill focuses on students and programs that work. Nelson was pleased that it received bipartisan support.

“There were no clinkers, there were no clunkers in this bill,” Nelson said. “This was a student-focused bill that’s good for all Minnesota.”

But the bill falls short of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal for a $709 million increase in education spending. The governor wants per pupil funding increases of 2 percent for each of the next two years. The House passed a bill last week that includes 1.25 percent increase each year.

The Senate bill keeps funding for voluntary prekindergarten flat, rather than the $175 million increase that Dayton wants. It instead increases money for early learning scholarships. The House bill eliminates pre-K funding.

Nelson said pre-K will be the big challenge in the three-way negotiations on a final education bill.

“There is a difference in how we think those funds should be used,” she said.

In a letter to Nelson, Dayton’s education commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the Senate bill is fair, but added that “children need far more than a fair bill … they need and deserve a great one.”

Senate Democrats were also critical of the bill, especially its spending levels.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the 1.5 percent formula increases are inadequate.

“With a $1.6 billion surplus, we need to put the majority of that surplus into our future, our students, our future workforce,” Wiger said.

Wiger also stressed the importance of voluntary prekindergarten. He noted that many school districts throughout the state are waiting for a chance to get pre-K funding.

The bill includes funding for a study of the state’s competing early childhood programs, with a report due next January.

The Senate bill also includes many policy provisions. One would allow schools districts to develop an online instruction option for days when students stay at home due to bad weather. But the bulk of the policy changes are related to teacher licensing.

Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said the bill changes the governance of licensing and creates a four-tier system for teacher licenses.

“The tiered structure clearly defines the qualifications applicants must have for each license and provides clarity and consistency to the applicants,” Pratt said.