The Minnesota Senate approved its version of the $15.7 billion education funding bill on Thursday, sparking a sharp debate over changes in testing standards that appear headed for approval.
The Senate voted 35-28 to approve the bill, which funds public education in the state for the two-year period beginning July 1. The House approved its version on Tuesday.
Like the House, the Senate bill calls for funding for statewide all-day kindergarten and scholarships for low-income families for pre-school programs.
The bill also switches to a new testing system that is focused on career and college goals. Supporters said the changes are needed to provide earlier and better help to students who are falling behind, but opponents said the loss of a strict graduation test requirement means the state is cheapening the high school diploma.
“We actually eliminate the requirement for a student to learn anything to graduate,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge. “It means your diploma is meaningless.”
The bill sponsor, Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said a panel of experts called for the testing changes, and the new system will get students the help they need.
An amendment to restore a test-score requirement for graduation was defeated.
A day-long debate focused on GOP criticisms that the DFL majority was rolling back the clock on ensuring that students and teachers are well-prepared, and on DFL praise for all-day kindergarten and expenditures on basic classroom education.
Both the House and Senate, which will write a final education-funding bill in a conference committee, have supported a move away from graduation tests and “cut scores” needed to receive a diploma.
Asked about the testing debate on Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton said he has been pushing education commissioner Brenda Cassellius “to figure out how we can reduce this excess of testing.”
“You need some testing and accountability,” he said. “But send third graders home thinking they’ve failed life because they failed some test – it’s just the wrong way to get kids to want to learn.”
A dispute broke out during the roll call when GOP members felt they could not get Senate President Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, to recognize them for floor speeches. Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, urged Republicans not to vote on the bill as a protest.
GOP members delayed voting while the voting board remained open, but eventually the vote was completed.