House DFLers: K-12 omnibus bill would help create “world’s best workforce”

/ 10 April 2013 / eunice

Sarah Lemagie, Session Daily, April 10, 2013 – Pledging to put Minnesota students on track to become the world’s best workforce, House majority leaders are calling for big new investments in education, starting with preschool scholarships and funding for all-day kindergarten.

An omnibus bill unveiled by House DFLers this week would increase state spending on education by $550 million over two years, a bump of 3.6 percent. More than half of the new money – $315 million – would fund a 4 percent increase on the basic school formula allowance, an additional $209 per pupil by the end of the next biennium.

The bill also includes $50 million for early learning scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds from lower-income families and, in fiscal year 2015, $105 million to fully fund all-day kindergarten for any district or student that wants it.

“We start early,” said Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth), the bill’s sponsor and chair of the House Education Finance Committee. The plan, he said, focuses on strategies that have been shown to raise student achievement and close the gaps between rich and poor, white and minority students.

The bill would also spend $30 million over two years to reduce the funding disparities that result from differences in the property wealth and locally approved taxes of individual school districts. And starting with $33 million in fiscal year 2015, it would increase the referendum equalization aid that helps lower the tax impact of locally approved school levies.

The committee got an overview of the omnibus bill, HF630, on Wednesday. It’s expected to hear testimony, consider amendments, and potentially take a vote on Thursday.

While praising the DFL’s proposed increase in basic funding for classrooms, Republicans are also criticizing many elements of the bill. “We are concerned that the plan today has less flexibility for school districts – that it creates more mandates, not less,” said Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine), the committee’s Republican lead. The bill doesn’t increase funding in the next biennium for needs such as special education and teacher evaluation, he added. “Our concern is that we’re going to put more money into new programs without really addressing the economic needs of the programs that we currently have in place.”

Woodard also noted that accelerated repayment of “shifted” school aid isn’t in the omnibus bill. House members in both parties have said it’s a priority to pay back that money, which lawmakers previously borrowed from schools to balance the state budget. DFLers say the $850 million shift payback will be included in the omnibus tax bill.

Many Republicans also object to a provision in the bill that would scrap the high-stakes graduation exams that the state currently requires of students. Instead of the GRAD tests in reading, math, and writing, students would have to take – but not achieve a minimum score on – a new series of tests in order to graduate. That change is part of a new assessment plan that DFL supporters say would more effectively intervene with struggling learners and help all students plan their futures.

Lofty goals for graduation, literacy

The bill sets ambitious goals: By 2027, House DFLers aim to erase the achievement gap entirely. They’re calling for a high school graduation rate of 100 percent, with all students reading proficiently in third grade and ready for college or careers when they leave school.

What’s in the bill?

The following are selected bills that have been incorporated in part or in whole into the omnibus K-12 education finance bill:
HF1151 Mariani
HF105 Ward, J.A.
HF821 Bernardy
HF1058 Winkler
HF248 Runbeck
HF579 Hortman
HF769 Faust

The bill would require school districts to make long-term strategic plans to achieve those goals. Regional centers of excellence would provide support, but districts that didn’t make adequate gains over time could face consequences: The Education Department would be able to reduce a district’s basic general education revenue by up to 4 percent and transfer the money to a regional center, which would use it to help the district. And if a school within that district still wasn’t making enough progress after three years, the department could require it to implement a turnaround plan.

While the goals of the 2027 plan may sound like the No Child Left Behind Act, they don’t come with the “scarlet letter” that the federal law slapped on schools, Marquart said. The bill’s language is “fairly open-ended,” he said after the meeting. “It’s working, coaching, moving toward the goals.”

By setting the bar high for literacy and graduation rates, the bill is sending this message to every single student in Minnesota, he said: “We will never give up on you.”