Though it took too long to get there, the Minnesota Legislature and governor did well by state students in the 2015 session. Lawmakers put an additional $525 million into educating kids over the next two years.
Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature didn’t complete their work in May and had to hold a daylong special session last week to reach agreement. Compromises yielded significant increases in two education areas that will help boost learning — general state aid and early education.
Lawmakers added $346 million to the basic per-pupil formula, which will increase payments to districts by 2 percent per student each year over the biennium. That will increase the formula allowance up to $5,948 next year and $6,067 in 2017. Those increases should help districts avoid dramatic budget cuts.
The second-largest amount of the new money will help Minnesota’s littlest learners. Slightly more than $90 million will be allotted to Head Start and school-readiness programs, expanding early learning scholarships and an early education ratings system. The governor had pushed for universal preschool for state 4-year-olds, but he dropped that plan in return for more money on the general formula.
That was the right choice. This page has emphasized targeting early education dollars to have the greatest impact on closing the state’s significant achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
School buildings also received a boost this session. Lawmakers approved $52 million for long-term facilities maintenance, which is especially important for districts that are unable to pass voter-approved levy increases for building improvements.
Dayton and legislators also deserve credit for boosting American Indian education funding by nearly $18 million. And to help another group of lower-income students improve academically, the Legislature allocated $1.2 million each to the North Side Achievement Zone and St. Paul Promise Neighborhood programs. Both provide important “wrap-around’’ services to families that support student learning.
Other positive legislative action this year will make it easier for out-of-state educators to become licensed in Minnesota, allow ninth- and 10th-grade students to take college-level courses while in high school, and will preserve important statewide assessments while limiting student time spent on tests imposed by local districts.
It’s regrettable that lawmakers once again failed to revise “last in, first out’’ (LIFO) rules that make seniority the sole factor when districts downsize unless school boards have negotiated other agreements. Lawmakers should reconsider LIFO in 2016.
At the beginning of this legislative session, we argued that lawmakers should focus on proven strategies to improve learning — including quality preschool and support services for children and families. For the most part, they delivered.