Gov. Tim Walz signed a $20 billion school spending measure into law Thursday as preschool students, school board members, a principal and a superintendent looked on.
School administrators who gathered at Bruce Vento Elementary School in St. Paul described the new law as a relief — but not a cause for celebration.
Money for 4,000 preschool seats that were due to expire will be preserved. Per-pupil spending will increase 2% each year. Schools will not have to make major cuts to further subsidize special education.
"It's status quo right now," St. Paul Public Schools Board Chairwoman Zuki Ellis said. "And our kids deserve more than that."
While educators said they would have liked more money, Walz heralded the spending plan for the next two years as a compromise that will benefit students across the state. It was one of 13 bills Walz signed into law Thursday, capping an end-of-sesion deal in the Legislature for a $48 billion two-year state budget.
Against a backdrop of picture books and stuffed animals, the governor acknowledged he wanted hundreds of millions of dollars more for education costs covering early childhood through high school. Walz, a former high school social science teacher, said schools are dealing with fiscal pressures ranging from inflation, new building construction and declining or shifting student enrollment.
"I think for a budget that is a compromise budget amongst all of us, my hope is that this stabilizes us, allows them to move forward," Walz said.
He gave a mini-civics lesson to a class of 4-year-olds who circled a desk set up for the bill signing. The elementary school has 80 of the 4,000 state-funded pre-K seats.
One Walz ally in the Legislature's budget talks, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said a benefit of having the governor closely involved in the negotiations was that lawmakers didn't have to deal with a veto threat.
Walz said some DFL policy measures that were taken off the table this year need to be reconsidered in 2020. He emphasized that he wants to do more to address racial and ethnic achievement gaps.
Education Minnesota, the teacher's union that was a key political booster for Walz, has a long wish list that remains unfulfilled in the Legislature. Union President Denise Specht said she would like the state to make changes to teacher licensing, require testing for radon and lead, add community services in schools and increase the number of teachers of color.
School officials at Thursday's event said more money for mental health services also is critical. The education bill designates $30 million for school safety and mental health support. Ellis said that is not enough to meet the needs facing schools, both in big cities and rural communities.
For Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, the big disappointment was the failure to grant tax credits to donors who give to private school scholarships.
The state needs to make sure both public and private schools are adequately funded, said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. She was one of many legislators who gathered in the Vento school library to watch Walz sign the bill.
But Nelson said the donor tax break idea would likely not be taken up until 2021, when the Legislature is developing the next two-year budget.
Staff writer Judy Keen contributed to this report.