With a projected $1.5 billion surplus, a new cast of lawmakers and a former teacher in the governor’s office, Minnesota education leaders are hopeful the 2019 legislative session will be a particularly fruitful one for the state’s K-12 schools.
Advocates have a long list of pressing issues. There are growing funding shortfalls for special education, gaps in student mental health services and safety improvements needed for school buildings. Many like what they heard on the campaign trail, where candidates pledged to prioritize early education funding, tackle the state’s teacher shortage and finally put a dent in Minnesota’s persistent achievement gap.
Now, education groups and school district leaders from around the state are preparing to spend five months lobbying legislators to ensure they follow through on those promises — and hoping their priorities don’t get lost amid broader political battles.
“I think the one piece that everyone is interested in is to say, ‘OK, that was the campaign mode — now govern,’ ” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. “How do we get those pieces into the operation of state government?”
This intensifying push for more money is already facing strong opposition from Republicans, who hold the majority in the Minnesota Senate.
Republicans have fought hard against blanket funding increases without proven results. They also say teachers unions hold too much sway with Democrats.
That concern intensified earlier in December when incoming DFL Gov. Tim Walz selected as his education commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, a former president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers who serves on the governing board of the teacher’s union Education Minnesota.
GOP Sen. Carla Nelson, chairwoman of the Education Finance and Policy Committee, cautioned the new administration that its constituents should be the students, not the unions.
In a budget-setting year, lawmakers’ decisions about K-12 schools carry significant weight. Currently, schools account for 41 percent of spending in the overall budget, adding up to about $18 billion.
Overall spending on schools grew by almost $2 billion during DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s eight years in office. Despite that trend, many districts around the state have faced major budget shortfalls, something their leaders blame in part on lawmakers’ funding decisions before and during Dayton’s time in office.
During last year’s legislative session, almost 60 school districts faced a combined shortfall of $127 million. Many made deep cuts, while others staved off reductions by turning to local voters for help. This year, some education leaders argue boosting the state’s basic education funding formula — the amount schools get based on the number of students they serve — is essential to avoid a similar situation this year.
In 2017, lawmakers agreed to increase the formula by 2 percent. This year, some groups are calling for even more. The Minnesota School Boards Association backs a 3 percent increase in each of the next two years, plus a shift that would tie the per-pupil funding formula to inflation.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said his group also wants to see annual increases reflect growth in inflation.
“It would allow school boards and administrators to do some long-term planning instead of lurching from crisis to crisis,” he said.
Lawmakers can expect to hear a lot from school districts about the growing costs of special education — and the ways in which it is forcing them to slash other parts of their budgets. Public schools are required to provide special education services, but the federal government has never followed through on its pledge to cover 40 percent of those costs. The state pitches in some money, but school leaders say it’s not enough; the average funding gap districts must make up themselves currently stands at $841 per student.
With need for those services increasing — 16 percent of students around the state are now enrolled in special education programs — those gaps have grown.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said the problem is “huge” and affects every district in the state. She said the state and the federal government need to do more so schools don’t have to go digging in their budgets to account for an unfunded mandate.
“I hear the frustration out there when I’m talking to the public about the ongoing financial needs, and people are like, ‘Are you kidding me? We just gave you 2 percent [more] last year,’ ” Specht said. “Yeah, but we should ask the federal government why we have to continue filling in their hole.”
Safety and mental health
Discussions about school safety were front and center during last year’s session, but legislators never settled on proposals to fund mental health services, more school counselors and other strategies. The Legislature did approve $25 million for improvements to school buildings — enough to fund only a fraction of the requests that flooded in from districts around the state.
Nearly 1,200 schools requested a combined $255 million in help with improvements ranging from communications systems to secured entrances and classroom door locks. Schneidawind said those numbers show lawmakers need to try again, with a larger funding package.
Two years ago, the Legislature approved an overhaul of the state’s teacher licensing system. It went into effect this year, but some pieces of it are still causing division among educators and advocates. Groups that supported the new system say it is largely working as intended, by eliminating unnecessary hurdles that kept out-of-state teachers and people with nontraditional teaching backgrounds from becoming licensed in Minnesota. But others, including the teachers’ union, worry that the new system devalues the teaching profession by eliminating some requirements for would-be teachers.
Josh Crosson, senior policy director for EdAllies, a supporter of the licensing overhaul, said he expects a battle over how the state handles teachers who enter the profession from outside the education world, like those with specialized backgrounds in arts or languages. He said his group wants to ensure Minnesota isn’t creating more barriers that could exacerbate its shortage of teachers.
“We’re going to be defending the interests of schools and teachers,” he said.
Crosson said EdAllies will also be pushing for more state help to recruit and retain teachers of color, expand alternative teacher certification programs and make education data the state collects more accessible to parents, community members and others who want to see how schools are performing.
Gov.-elect Walz has pledged to continue Dayton’s long effort to expand public prekindergarten programs for all 4-year-olds in Minnesota. That idea has sparked years of debate over whether the state should target its early learning money to families with the least ability to afford it, or make the program universal.
The Legislature is likely to continue that conversation — and it must decide whether to extend early learning funding it approved in the last budget session.
If lawmakers do not act, 79 school districts that currently have prekindergarten and other early education programs would see their money run out.