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‘Bold and beautiful’ or full of inequities?

Published (5/20/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Weary House members voted 70-55 May 18 to pass the conference committee report for the omnibus education finance bill.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), a sponsor of HF934*/ SF1030, called it a “bold and beautiful bill” featuring reforms, including a teacher appraisal and effectiveness rating system; expanding school choice through a nonpublic school voucher program for some low-income students; a school report card A-to-F grading system; and changes to teacher tenure and bargaining rights that would prohibit teacher strikes, eliminate seniority-only employment decisions and create five-year renewable tenure. It would increase basic per pupil funding by $41 over the 2012-2013 biennium.

Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) called it “an experiment with unsupportable proposals.”

“I see that there are many proven methods of increasing student achievement that are not included in the bill,” said Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin), including early childhood education and extended-time revenue.

The conference committee report passed the Senate 37-26 later in the morning where Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) is its sponsor. It now awaits action by the governor.

$450 million increase or $44 million cut?

When the conference report was introduced on the House floor around 2 a.m., DFL members took turns speaking against funding changes and policy provisions they said would create “winners and losers” among state students.

“The inequities that plague education funding currently continue in this bill,” Dittrich said.

“If you’re a small, rural, isolated, declining-enrollment district with poor property wealth, you’re out of luck. No help. Get along, go along on your own. Do the best you can,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township).

Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) distributed spreadsheets to members showing net gains in some school districts’ per pupil funding compared with baseline spending and losses in others districts, with Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul “clearly the biggest losers.”

According to Garofalo, the bill’s target of $14.13 billion for the 2012-13 biennium would increase funding by $450 million in additional state aid. According to Greiling, it represents a $44 million cut that would hit Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul, especially hard, but would also result in per pupil net cuts to many other districts throughout the state.

Each sees the same numbers differently, with Garofalo comparing them to prior year spending and Greiling to the base budget.

“I don’t know of any person in this body who campaigned to cut K-12 education. But that’s what we’re looking at tonight, in the middle of the night,” Greiling said.

The voucher proposal drew particular opposition from DFL members.

Mariani said the plan “sucks money out of our public education system and sends it off to private institutions. With this voucher program we’re just going to hand over $17 million with minimal accountability. And that’s on top of the $11 million tax credit” for private school tuition proposed in the tax bill passed earlier that day.

Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine) said the scholarships would offer one more school choice option that empowers parents.

“If parents decide this is not an option they want to take, the money never leaves,” he said.

The bill would eliminate integration rule, or the statute that requires school districts to establish measures to promote racial integration at school sites within a district or in collaboration with nearby districts. Mariani said the move makes no sense during a time when multicultural skills are more necessary than ever in a global economy and increasingly diverse state.

It would repeal integration aid in fiscal year 2012, to be partially replaced with innovation transition achievement revenue and literacy aid. Compensatory revenue — a complex formula based on district and site concentrations of students in poverty — would be delinked from the basic formula and fixed at $4,179 per eligible pupil. Combined, the cuts would affect Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul schools most, DFL members said.

Garofalo said lawmakers had accommodated some of the governor’s positions including restoring part of the regular and excess special education aid growth factor and removing a proposal to close the Perpich Center for Arts Education as a state agency.

He said May 17 that the voucher issue had come up in conversations with Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, but would not characterize her or the governor’s position on the bill or say if he thinks it’s headed for a veto.

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