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At Issue: Bill goes away, but provisions stay

Published (5/30/2008)
By Thomas Hammell
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The outlook for more education funding looked grim after Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the omnibus education finance bill May 16, and most of the original K-12 provisions had been removed from HF1812*/SF3813, the omnibus supplemental budget law.

Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Division, pulled last year’s version of the education finance bill (HF6) from the table and inserted an earlier version of the K-12 finance portions of HF1812. That bill was passed by the House, but later vetoed by Pawlenty.

With just 19 hours to go before adjournment, budget conferees added provisions almost identical to those in HF6 to HF1812. The law takes effect July 1, 2008.

Funding has been a sore subject for schools as state allocations have not risen as fast as building and special education costs, critics say.

“The funding system, the funding mechanisms that you have in place, are not working,” Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Stan Mack told a House division earlier this year. “In fact, I would bluntly say it’s broken.”

The new law provides a 1 percent increase in school funding in the form of a $51 per pupil unit increase.

In his veto letter for HF6, Pawlenty questioned the funding source, a freeze in the Quality Compensation for Teachers program. In the final budget-balancing law, the amount of Q Comp money used is halved to $10 million; the schools that applied for the funding will be permitted to receive it.

Reducing the amount of Q Comp money used required an additional $26.6 million from the General Fund to fund the $51 per pupil unit.

School districts with excess money in accounts for capital projects will also have the option of moving another $51 per pupil unit into their general education funds.

Though both funding sources are temporary, the law contains one permanent source of additional income.

Money generated by Permanent School Trust Fund lands will now go directly to schools instead of as an offset from the General Fund, resulting in a net increase of $36 per student. These lands were established when Minnesota became a state for the benefit of schools and the money comes mostly from mineral rights and timber sales.

School districts could have an easier time passing levies, thanks to some language changes in the ballot notification required when passing school levies.

State law requires a notification on the ballot that a school levy would increase property taxes if passed. Now, in the case of existing levies, the ballot can simply say passage of this referendum extends the existing referendum at the same amount.

Legislators held off on establishing an Office of Early Learning to oversee early childhood and child care programs run by the Education and Human Services departments, but the seeds of the office have been sown in the form of a committee designed to look into the subject.

The size and the mission of the State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care will expand. Majority and minority members of the House and Senate, as well as two parents of children under age 6, will be added to the council. It is charged with fulfilling the duties of the federal Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007. The group will make recommendations to the state on the most effective ways to leverage state and federal funding for early childhood and child care programs.

The law also extends, by one year, a task force assigned to review state special education rules to determine if they meet or exceed federal standards.

Only one provision from the omnibus education policy bill became law, in the form of a $50,000 allocation to help close the achievement gap.

This money will be used to study ways that rigorous coursework, the professional development of educators and other factors impact low-income students and students of color. An advisory task force will be established in 2009 to look at these factors.

Greiling said the bill will give school districts short-term relief from the funding pressures that are stretching them to the breaking point.

“This bill gives schools a little breathing room for the coming school year. It also lays the groundwork for comprehensive funding reform that fairly and adequately meets the needs of every student and every district,” she said.

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