Minnesota House passes sweeping education budget proposal

Compromise with GOP Senate needed to become law

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, spoke during the debate over the House education budget bill on April 9, 2021.

The DFL-majority Minnesota House passed its education budget bill Monday 73-60, following hours of contentious debate over the 260-page measure. 

The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to take up their own education bill in the Finance Committee Tuesday.* The two chambers will have to hash out a compromise on the schools budget. School spending accounts for roughly 40% of the two-year, $52 billion budget lawmakers must finish before the fiscal year ends on June 30. 

The $21.2 billion House bill includes more than $724 million in new spending over the next two years. Democratic-Farmer-Labor representatives said the proposal would improve the state’s worst-in-the-nation racial disparities in education and help students recover from the pandemic. 

“(This) is our opportunity to meet the moment we find ourselves in,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, the chair of the House Education Finance Committee. “We can build back out of this pandemic thoughtfully and strategically.”

Republicans criticized some provisions as too expensive and called for the Legislature to streamline education regulations.

“This is exactly why people hate bureaucracy, and they hate what we do down here,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Fall, arguing for loosening substitute teacher licensing requirements. “This is coming to us from local officials in the schools who know exactly what they’re asking for.”

The House bill includes a 2% increase to the general funding formula, which is the complicated equation that sets the minimum level of state funding for school districts. This year, schools receive $6,567 per student from the funding formula; they would receive $6,698 per student next year and $6,832 per student in 2023. The funding formula would also be tied to the rate of inflation starting in 2025.

The bill includes several planks of the Increase Teachers of Color Act — a bipartisan bill that has been introduced each year since 2017 without passage. It would direct more than $12 million to efforts aimed at hiring and retaining more Native American teachers and teachers of color in Minnesota, recruiting and training high school students and other prospective teachers, for instance.

The bill would also prohibit schools from suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade; require that students learn about Native history and culture in social studies; and alter teacher licensure requirements, among other policy changes.

Legislators were set to debate more than 50 proposed amendments to the bill Monday. By mid-afternoon, a handful had been approved, several sponsored by Republicans. One would seek to prevent students from viewing inappropriate material in school digital libraries. Another would mandate that schools have staff mentorship programs, while a third would change reporting requirements for high school students enrolled in post-secondary classes.

Republicans unsuccessfully pushed for several measures to reduce spending in the bill, including eliminating funds for implementing ethnic studies in curriculum standards.

Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, introduced a proposal that would allow school districts to hire people who are not educators as short-term substitute teachers if they meet certain licensing requirements. Mueller said the change was suggested by people in her district and would make it easier for schools to find substitute teachers. 

Some legislators said they were concerned about taking control of substitute teachers away from the licensing board. The amendment didn’t pass.

The state’s academic standards and curriculum also came up a number of times. Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, introduced an amendment to pause the ongoing review of the state’s social studies standards until 2022. The review, required by state law, has been a controversial process.

Lawmakers also debated a measure to make state academic standards optional for school districts; another to require that social studies standards include “the dangers and perils of communism and socialism”; and one to give the Legislature final approval over academic standards — under current law, the commissioner of education has final approval. The amendments were not adopted.

“You don’t want me offering amendments on the math standards. Take my word for it,” Davnie said. “We used to do this … in the early 2000s. It was a really bad idea then, and it’s a really bad idea now.”

Legislators did approve a measure sponsored by Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, to require that 11th or 12th grade students take an advanced government or citizenship course as a graduation requirement. Civics classes are mostly given to ninth graders, and older students are more likely to understand the importance of those lessons, he said.

“The relative neglect of civic education over the past half-century, a period of wrenching change, is one important cause of our civic and political dysfunction,” Urdahl said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story originally misstated when the Senate would take up an education budget bill. 

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.