The Minnesota House decided Tuesday to pay for free all-day kindergarten statewide, to make early-childhood education programs more affordable and to pump more money into K-12 classrooms — the promised goodies from tax hikes the DFL majority is expected to take up later this week.
The House, by an 83-50 vote, passed a $15.7 billion K-12 education-funding bill with heady hopes of creating the “world’s greatest workforce” by wiping out the achievement gap affecting minority students and achieving 100 percent high school graduation by the time today’s preschoolers graduate from high school in 2027.
The House also voted to eliminate requirements that high school students achieve a certain score on reading, writing and math tests in order to graduate, a move that was recommended by a state task force but which has been opposed by business groups. Wearing buttons reading “Don’t Dumb Down Our Diploma,” GOP members sought unsuccessfully to restore the minimum “cut score” for graduation.
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said the bill represented a $550 million increase over the current level. Combined with higher education increases to be taken up later this week, the education measures represent the main new initiatives of the DFL majority.
Later this week, both the House and Senate will consider a series of tax hikes to pay for the new spending while also balancing the state budget.
“This is a historic day for Minnesota,” said Marquart. “We are going to put every kid in this state on the path to the world’s best workforce.”
He said the DFL would do so by:
• Extending free all-day kindergarten to all students. Currently, he said, about 75 percent of students have access to all-day kindergarten, but about 10,000 families must pay for it. The bill will save those families $26 million, Marquart said.
• Providing scholarships to low-income parents so their children can afford to attend preschool.
• Pumping about $315 million into basic classroom education.
• Eliminating high-stakes high school graduation tests and adopting a new testing system coordinated with postsecondary education and employment opportunities.
• Setting aside $850 million in a separate bill, the tax bill, to fully pay back the state’s debt to schools.
• Changing the school-funding formula so poorer districts receive additional revenue.
• Expanding regional centers of excellence to help troubled schools.
Supporters said the bill will reverse what DFLers called “a decade of disinvestment” in public education and will focus on programs with proven records. Opponents focused more on policy changes than financial issues, including the effectiveness of expenditures on all-day kindergarten and the proposed changes in high-stakes testing.
At issue are three tests known as Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma, or GRAD tests, in reading, writing and math. Students must now pass the reading and writing tests to graduate, and the math test requirement will take effect for those graduating in 2015.
The bill states that students will not be required to achieve a certain score or level of proficiency on a test to graduate from high school.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that the tests are outdated and ineffective, and that a large percentage of minority students could fail the math tests once it becomes a firm requirement. The Minnesota Business Partnership has been running television ads to preserve basic standards.
Amendments from Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, sought to reinstate specific test-score requirements for graduation. While setting long-term goals is laudable, Erickson said, the goals are undercut by the testing change. “We have no solid requirement for academic competence for a student to graduate from high school,” she said.
“It smacks of that fad, social promotion, the direction we’re going,” added Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe. Gruenhagen also blamed some classroom problems on the influence of psychology on education. “They have replaced moral absolutes … with feelings and self esteem,” he said.
Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, author of the new testing provisions, responded that too many students are dropping out, and the new system would get them help earlier. “You need to notice how many students aren’t graduating,” she said.
Added Rep. Barb Yarusso, DFL-Shoreview, another supporter of the testing changes: “Nobody ever learned anything by taking a test.”
The House voted 73-61 against Erickson’s amendment and in favor of the new testing provisions.
The Senate’s version of the education bill includes funding for all-day kindergarten and early-childhood education, but does not seek to accelerate the repayment of the school debt. The Senate is scheduled to take up its version later this week, and then the two sides will iron out differences in a conference committee.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042