by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Senate Democrats presented their $15.6 billion education bill on Thursday (April 11) one they promote as providing property tax relief and making key education investments.
“I’m proud of this bill,” Senate Education Finance Committee Vice Chair Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, said.
Senate Democrats slate $130 million toward providing all-day, every-day kindergarten. Currently, about 67 percent of school districts offer it, Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said.
“(It’s) truly an investment in our young people,” Clausen said.
School districts are not mandated to offer all-day, every-day kindergarten under the bill, but they cannot use the funding while maintaining fee-based kindergarten programs.
Senate Democrats toss an extra $100 million onto the basic funding formula. With extra dollars devoted to early education and special education, the figures round out to $356 million in new education spending.
Senate Democrats also emphasized property tax relief. The Senate tax bill will provide about $130 million to buy down school levies, with other dollars bringing the total to $150 million. This should result in lower property taxes statewide, Senate Democrats argue, though they could not put a figure on the savings individual taxpayers might see.
“That’s very difficult to know,” Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said.
Three levies – the operating capital levy, the school safety levy and the equity levy – are proposed to be bought out. There is no requirement the savings, about $200 per pupil, be passed onto taxpayers.
Accountability in funding
Like House Democrats, Senate Democrats portray their bill as encouraging accountability.
School district integration aid – funding to improve educational outcomes for students of varying racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds – could be slashed by 20 percent if school districts fail to meet two-year improvement goals. Goals focus on math, reading and writing, Education Policy Committee Chairwoman Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said.
The Senate allocates about $127 million in integration funding over the biennium.
But the dollars are not evenly distributed. Many Greater Minnesota school districts do not receive them.
House Democrats also have accountability provisions in their bill that could result in funding cuts, though their approach is different.
Unlike House Democrats, Senate Democrats do not attempt to immediately payback the school funding shift. Education Finance Committee Chairman Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said local school officials overwhelmingly tell him delaying the payback is not a problem.
Assessing schools, students
Senate Democrats look to increase the school compulsory attendance age from 16 to 17 years old.
“We’re tied for last (place) in America,” Wiger said.
Further, Minnesota ranks 27th in terms of high school graduation, he said.
“It’s unacceptable,” Wiger said.
One controversial section of the Senate bill, passed out of committee Thursday night, deals with assessment.
Currently, to receive a diploma, high school students need to pass reading, writing and math tests, or, if they do not pass the math test, retest or complete tutoring or other coursework. But critics of the GRAD tests argue that “high stakes” testing has students “falling away” from their schooling.
Matthew Mohs, the Interim Chief Academic Officer for the Saint Paul Public Schools, testified there was no evidence the GRAD test was improving student outcomes.
“It plays a role in our system, but it’s not a positive one,” he said.
The “rank and sort” style of testing has become antiquated, Mohs has testified. Instead, testing with an eye toward students obtaining meaningful work and college-readiness should be established.
Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said here was a middle ground between having standards and not having them.
“(But) assessment is inevitable,” Petersen said.
The Senate bill has the commissioner of education consulting with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities officials for assessments aligning state academic standards and including career and college readiness benchmarks, among other assessment provisions.
An Assessment and Accountability Working Group recently voted to eliminate the GRAD exam and instead create assessments measuring students’ readiness for college or career. Not everyone is going to college, one work group member told the Education Committee on Thursday.
Minnesota Business Partnership argued against the changes.
Tim Budig can be reached at email@example.com