All Minnesotans want their children to have access to quality education. And they’ve demonstrated support of that ideal in numerous ways by often voting for school referendums, turning out in large numbers to discuss school issues, and supporting local and state “education” candidates.
Now as the 2019 legislative session draws to a close, lawmakers must once again decide how much to allocate to educate state children. Not surprisingly, when it comes to E-12 funding, substantial differences remain between the DFL governor and DFL-majority House and the GOP-controlled Senate.
At one end of the spectrum, the GOP Senate would increase education spending by $228 million over the next biennium. House DFLers have an additional $900 million in their proposed bill, and Gov. Tim Walz recommends spending $719 million more over the two years.
Those amounts are in addition to the $16 billion current budget and the automatic increases that would come from higher enrollment and other built-in adjustments.
Democrats and Republicans say they are seeking the same outcomes for students, but they often dramatically part company on how to do it.
DFLers argue that the increased investment is needed to stabilize school budgets that have not been able to keep pace with rising costs over the years. They also promote specific programs such as such as recruiting teachers of color or expanding preschool to help meet the growing and diverse needs of kids and families. GOPers, consistent with a philosophy of lowering taxes, generally want smaller spending increases along with education reforms and flexibility for districts to decide what works best for them.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued previously, the governor’s overall spending plan is too rich, and the portion devoted to education also needs to be scaled back. Lawmakers should settle on a compromise to balance wants and needs with what is reasonable for the state and its taxpayers.
The state is the largest funder of Minnesota education, supporting about 68% of all public-school budgets. School leaders have flexibility with those funds. Most of it, however, is used to pay for teacher and other staff salaries and school operating expenses.
Much of the governor’s budget is aimed at living up to his “One Minnesota” campaign theme by equalizing services and opportunities across urban and rural areas. That includes substantial investment in education consistent, he says, with what Minnesotans told him they want during his listening tour of the state.
And although the goals are laudable, paying for them bumps up against what’s prudent — especially considering that the state will not always have budget surpluses on its balance sheet.
If a compromise is reached, say at $500 million in additional spending over the two years, some districts could still face projected budget shortfalls. However, as has been previously noted by the Editorial Board, all school districts should be looking for ways to live within their means.
There are a few areas of education spending where the political parties share common ground, and those may be resolved more quickly in conference committee. Both wisely want to put more funding into school safety and mental health. And though they take different approaches, both are right to call for increases in early learning and prekindergarten funding.
With less than three weeks left before the session is scheduled to end, the conference committee negotiations are scheduled to begin on Monday.
The Legislature and Walz should land in a place that fairly funds Minnesota schools but doesn’t make unsustainable financial commitments.