Well-educated students are directly tied to Minnesota’s future success. That’s a key reason why the Star Tribune Editorial Board continues to beat the drum for closing the state’s unacceptable achievement gaps. At the beginning of this legislative session, we said lawmakers should focus on proven strategies to meet that goal — including improved instruction, quality preschool, and support services for children and families.
To that end, the Legislature is considering some very different budget proposals for education. At one end of the spectrum, the House GOP would increase education spending by $157 million over the next biennium. Gov. Mark Dayton and House DFLers want an additional $700 million to $800 million over current spending.
The Senate plan to boost spending by about $360 million over the biennium gets our nod. The largest portion of those additional dollars — about $170 million — should go to a 1-percent-per-year increase in the general per-pupil education formula.
It’s a modest boost — one that would likely still cause some districts to seek more from local taxpayers through levies. However, it’s important to note that some districts might have the flexibility to reallocate current spending to meet some of their needs without asking for more from local taxpayers.
Another chunk of the additional spending in the 2016-17 general fund budget should enhance learning for Minnesota’s youngest students. At least $150 million should be devoted to school readiness, preschool and early-grade initiatives. These are also the programs that can narrow and close the stubborn achievement gaps that exist between student groups.
On that score, we favor need-based preschool scholarships for low-income children that could be used either for private or school-based programs. Though the state might eventually adopt universal preschool, as Dayton proposes, given current resources it’s best to target the neediest students first in this round of budgeting.
The Legislature can best serve teens by funding expanded opportunities for them to earn postsecondary credits while in high school through concurrent enrollment programs. To support classroom instruction, we endorse the Senate plan for about $8 million in grants to help hire new counselors, nurses and social workers to decrease caseloads for existing support staff. In addition, some funding should be used to ease the rising costs of special education. And the state should make a greater financial commitment to American Indian education programs, given the federal neglect of those schools described in the Star Tribune editorial series “Separate and Unequal.”
Money will not fix all that ails public education, of course. Now that the state’s new statewide teacher evaluation process is in place, the Legislature should revise the “last in, first out” (LIFO) rules that make seniority the sole factor when districts downsize unless school boards have negotiated other agreements. District leaders should not face obstacles in their efforts to retain the best and brightest educators. Similarly, legislators should make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become licensed in Minnesota, as some school administrators have urged.
The status quo isn’t solving the achievement gap problems that have plagued Minnesota for too long. Strategic funding decisions — coupled with smart tenure and licensing reforms aimed at boosting teacher quality — are needed to give all kids a better chance to succeed.