Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan wrapped up a weeklong tour of Minnesota schools on Tuesday, highlighting their plan to boost education spending by $733 million — and the ways in which they say it would help improve the lives of students and their communities.
The DFL governor’s stop at Meadow Lake Elementary in New Hope included a short conversation with some prekindergarten students. He told them about his past career as a teacher and about his week visiting schools in nearly a dozen cities — including Rochester, Cloquet, Bemidji and Winona — to gather input and ideas.
“We’re here today to talk about what we can do to make sure that this is a place you want to come to, that you come here in the morning, you say: ‘Yay! This is a great place,’ ” Walz told the students.
“Yay! This is a great place!” one of the students echoed back.
The governor’s plan for ensuring that more students have the same enthusiastic response calls for a significant boost to the approximately $9 billion the state currently spends on E-12 schools annually. It would increase the basic per-pupil funding formula by 3 percent in the first year of the two-year budget cycle (about $189 per student) and by 2 percent in the second year (about $130 per student).
The budget sets aside $77 million to help districts facing a growing budget strain from rising special education costs. Around the state, districts’ special education costs are increasing at a rate that far outpaces the amount of special education funding provided by the state and federal government, leading many to cut programs or staff.
Among the other major expenses are $59 million for prekindergarten programs that currently serve 4,000 students but are set to lose funding if the Legislature does not act. Walz highlighted that spending as a critical opportunity to reach more students at a young age, setting them on a path toward a productive adulthood — rather than a rocky road toward the criminal justice system.
He noted that prekindergarten classrooms like the one where he was speaking Tuesday — and where he was greeted by the eager group of 4-year-olds — would be at risk if the Legislature doesn’t follow through on his spending plan.
“That has incredible lifelong implications for them, it has incredible implications for Minnesota and potential employment we have and the cost to us in both social services and corrections,” he said.
Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins, who joined Walz on his visit to the elementary school, said a lack of new prekindergarten funding would affect 400 students in his district, along with the broader community.
“You can’t move forward competitively if your community isn’t a learning community,” he said. “So we desperately need this kind of support.”
Other pieces of Walz’s plan include: $26 million for school-safety expenses, $8 million for full-service community schools that provide health care, job-training programs and other services inside school buildings and $8 million to expand programs aimed at recruiting and retaining teachers of color. The governor said attracting more teachers and keeping them in the profession is a top priority and that pay can play a major role in whether people leave the classroom.
Walz’s plans are likely to be the subject of plenty of debates in a politically divided Legislature. In the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Carla Nelson said she and other GOP lawmakers hold many of same goals as the Walz administration. But she has serious concerns about some of the spending increases — especially when it comes to the state’s ability to sustain new programs and services over time.
She said Minnesota should focus more on programs that have worked elsewhere to improve graduation rates and reduce the state’s persistent achievement gap, such as early-literacy instruction and dual-learning programs that also include job training. She supports increasing early-education programs but believes the state should offer families scholarships that can be used at private preschools, rather than spending only on prekindergarten in public schools.
Nelson said she thinks the governor’s budget has worthy goals but lacks “innovation.”
“I see his budget as very aspirational ... and I do miss [seeing] those reforms,” she said. “We’re going to continue to get the same results if we do things the same way.”