The Minnesota Senate approved a $19.7 billion early education and school funding proposal Wednesday, finalizing the parameters for end-of-session negotiations with Democrats over how much to spend on the state’s school districts.

The Senate bill, which passed on a largely party-line vote, would increase state support for local school districts by $900 million, or roughly 5%, over the next two years. Per-pupil spending would go up by a half percent each year.

The plan in the Republican-controlled Senate comes in hundreds of millions of dollars below the budgets advanced by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and DFL lawmakers in the state House. Some school districts and administrators have raised concerns about the Senate’s funding level, saying it’s insufficient given the growing size and needs of their student populations.

“Our concern is that with the Senate’s proposed budget, we would be looking at devastating cuts to the district,” said Christine Osorio, superintendent for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District. “We would see devastating cuts to staffing, professional development resources and resources that help us with our struggling learners.”

Republican Sen. Carla Nelson, chairwoman of the upper chamber’s education finance and policy committee, said her plan sends more money to classrooms without relying on tax increases pushed by Democrats.

“This bill fully funds our current commitments and it makes generous new commitments for the upcoming school years,” the Rochester Republican said.

The bill includes new funding for school safety, mental health and suicide prevention training. It replaces a voluntary prekindergarten pilot program with early learning scholarships that parents could use to send their children to existing sites or private or faith-based early learning programs. Democrats argued that those provisions do not go far enough to support students.

In addition to the funding gap, there are significant policy differences between the competing plans advanced by the Senate and the House. The House schools budget, for example, reins in a new teacher licensing system that makes room for educators without traditional teacher training, something teachers’ unions oppose. It also has a requirement that districts teach age-appropriate sexual education starting in elementary school. Nelson said the Senate’s plan steers clear of controversial policy changes.

“We’re focused on students,” she said. “We fund what works.”

The Senate was also set to pass a $6.6 billion transportation package Wednesday evening that leaves out House DFL plans for additional spending funded by a 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. Senate Republicans have vowed to block the tax hike.

The Senate’s action marked the end of a two-week window for lawmakers in the House and Senate to clear the session’s budget bills.

 

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said the bill passed on a party-line vote.