Legislative plan aims to reform school funding

Lawrence Schumacher, St. Cloud Times, April 08, 2008 –

ST. PAUL — After watching a plea for more property tax dollars for the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district go down in defeat last year, Joan Hauck said it’s time for a different way to pay for Minnesota’s schools.

“It needs to be equitable for each student in the state, and we need to stop needing levies for everything. They just drive everyone apart,” she said Monday at a Parents United meeting at the Capitol.

“We need a new Minnesota Miracle,” she said.

That’s the name supporters have given to a plan to reform K-12 school funding, unveiled Monday at a news conference.

At a cost of $1.7 billion more per year, House DFLers, joined by some Republicans and Senate members gave a first look at the plan they hope will be a defining issue in this year’s state elections.

“I hope you’ll ask candidates whether they support this plan, and then ask them how they’d be willing to pay for it,” Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, told the Parents United members.

Greiling, the House K-12 Finance Committee chairwoman and House author of the plan, said it is based on a proposal from a group of educators and parents called PS Minnesota, which has been trying to convince lawmakers for several years to reform the state’s convoluted formulas for funding public education.

Greiling’s plan starts with the PS Minnesota philosophy that a student should count as a student, no matter what grade, and the formula should recognize what it takes to educate that student, no matter where they live, said Greg Vandal, Sauk Rapids-Rice school superintendent and a member of PS Minnesota.

“We think it’s a good start,” Vandal said of Greiling’s plan. “Of course, putting a good formula in place and then not putting the necessary money into it doesn’t get you very far, so that will be the challenge.”

Details

Greiling’s proposal is the result of a bipartisan education finance reform task force’s work in the past year.

It promises to boost state funding back up to 85 percent of all dollars spent on K-12. It also says it will save $600 million in property tax dollars being spent on education levies.

Full funding for voluntary all-day kindergarten, English as a Second Language and special education programs is promised, and the bill contains help for districts through debt-service equalization, agriculture property tax credits and transportation aid.

“The whole equation really needs to be fixed, and these are necessary baby steps,” said Rep. Larry Haws, DFL-St. Cloud. “We need a no school district left behind program and this does that.”

Paying for it

But Greiling, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and the lawmakers who stood in favor of the bill Monday offered no specifics about how to pay for the increased funding, a point Gov. Tim Pawlenty noted wryly.

“The ‘Miracle’ is they’re hoping for a way to pay for it,” Pawlenty said. “It doesn’t reform education, it doesn’t have accountability for results. It’s just tweaking the formula.”

Greiling emphasized that the new formula can be implemented over several years, as funds become available.

The Senate hasn’t had a look at spreadsheets that show how the plan would change what districts receive now, but the bill is a good first step, said Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud.

“We also need to do reform and accountability,” she said. “But addressing what we need to do with funding is critical.”

Greiling acknowledges a long road ahead. A hearing Thursday in her committee, followed by hearings statewide this summer, is likely all that will happen this year, she said.

“I think we’ll pass something next year,” she said. “The question is how much money we put into it. Some of that depends on who gets elected this fall.”

Lawrence Schumacher, lschumacher@stcloudtimes.com

http://www.sctimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080408/NEWS01/104070069/1001/OPINION

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