When DFL state Rep. Denise Dittrich went door to door campaigning for re-election in Champlin last week, a smattering of homeowners brought up education.
One worried that the enrollment at her child's elementary school would drop so low that the school would shut down. Another fretted about property taxes that have soared, in part because voters approved increases in school funds.
One resident, Shelley Peterson, said she was equally concerned about education and the economy. She said she wants more money for education and wants to lower the high activity fees in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. But would she be willing to consider higher taxes to do that?
"It depends on how much," she said.
All in all, there was no hue and cry about schools being underfunded.
That and the sad state of the economy haven't stopped DFL legislators from pushing what they hope will be one of the biggest school funding boosts in recent history -- and one likely to involve a tax increase.
The plan is dubbed the "New Minnesota Miracle" after the state's 1971 initiative that shifted most school funding from local property taxes to the state.
The new plan calls for $2.5 billion more a year for K-12 education, though it could be phased in over a number of years. That figure includes $400 million earmarked to lower property taxes for homeowners who have watched their tax bills go up after local school funding requests were approved at the polls. The state now spends more than $7 billion a year, or about 40 percent of the state's total general fund budget, on K-12 education.
Securing such a large infusion of money for schools would translate into fewer teacher layoffs, restored programs and lower activity fees. The plan would pour money into basic education funding for schools to use as they see fit. There also would be more money to cover school special education costs, pay for all-day kindergarten for everyone who wants it, and reimburse schools for some of their lost revenues due to declining enrollments.
DFL House candidates are making the New Minnesota Miracle a campaign issue this fall, though the plan's fate will depend on the House makeup after the elections and the state budget forecast, due in November.
Non-starter for GOP
For many Republicans, the plan is a non-starter because it would require tax boosts and doesn't do enough to improve teacher training and hold schools responsible for students' academic performance.
"You'd think with an economic crisis facing the nation that Democrats would finally back off their calls for increased taxes, but they just keep coming," said Brian McClung, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "In addition, their proposal simply tweaks school funding formulas without demanding accountability for better results."
"To me, it looks like an election-year ploy to get votes with absolutely no clue how to pay for it," said House minority leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. "We want to focus on the economy and job creation."
The faltering economy could make the New Minnesota Miracle a tough sell.
"The concern to us is that it looks like it's going into a legislative session with a huge scarcity of money," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, which supports most of the New Minnesota Miracle's concepts.
The proposal comes as school districts statewide are struggling to find more funding to keep up with their rising costs and are going more often to voters to approve property tax increases to replace state aid that they say has become undependable. DFL legislators are hammering out final details of the plan, which will be introduced as a bill when the Legislature convenes in January.
Anxiety over economy
But campaigning DFL House members are hearing first and foremost about pocketbook concerns.
"The Number 1 thing we're hearing about is turning around the Minnesota economy to a better spot than it's in," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis. "Absolutely, a part of that is education. Another part is jobs. Another part is health care. Another focus is on energy. ... People want the state to provide a high quality, equitable education for students. We do hear that from people."
Under the plan, 1.5 percent of a district's revenue would have to be devoted to research on how to improve student performance. Districts that didn't improve enough would have to submit detailed plans on how they could boost performance.
But financing such a plan also means higher taxes.
"There will be some [tax increases]," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, and one of the New Minnesota Miracle's architects. "But we also have to look for ways of doing things more efficiently. We have been cutting schools and starving them for over a decade. ... It's come time to pay the piper, and say, 'Do we want to be a strong state that has a good education for our kids?'"
Even some DFLers question how the state can afford the initiative. "The question many people are asking is, 'Where are we going to find the new money to fund these proposals?'" said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury.
Greiling said it doesn't have to happen all in one year. She said the initiative can be phased in, preferably over six years, which would translate into school spending increases of 4 to 5 percent a year.
Hearings being held
Greiling's K-12 finance division has been holding education committee hearings around the state to explain the new plan. She said the reaction, mostly from educators, has been enthusiastic.
Organizations such as the Association of Metropolitan School Districts and Parents United for Public Schools say they support the plan as it stands now. Tom Dooher, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, characterized the New Minnesota Miracle as "a great start." Plus, noted Greiling, Republicans helped come up with the New Minnesota Miracle.
Greiling makes no apologies for the timing of the idea.
"For us to say this is not the right time because we have a budget deficit is letting the fire of our bad economy keep roaring along," she said.
"This is not picking a bad time. It is to help the bad time. ... It's a chicken-and-egg type thing; the economy is doing poorly because we're not doing well in education."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547