What is — and isn’t — in the House and Senate’s $21 billion education budget bills

By: - April 26, 2021 7:47 am

The Minnesota State Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Minnesota House and Senate both passed education budget bills last week after hours of heated debate over funding and policy priorities.

The schools budget is a crucial package not only because of its size — it represents roughly 40% of the two-year, $52 billion state budget — but also because of its role in addressing some of Minnesota’s most pressing issues. The North Star State has long suffered some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in education, and the stress and disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have had devastating effects on some students, especially low-income students and students of color.

The proposals cover a combined total of more than 400 pages and have little in common, so legislators have their work cut out for them between now and the end of the legislative session on May 17. The DFL-led House and GOP-majority Senate have to hash out a compromise on the finance bill and get Gov. Tim Walz’s approval before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Here’s a breakdown of what is — and isn’t — in the House and Senate education finance bills.

General education funding

School funding is certain to be a flashpoint during negotiations over the House and Senate education bills. The House bill calls for about $600 million more in spending than the Senate’s and 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. The Senate bill keeps the formula flat and includes $60 million in one-time aid for schools.

Republicans say the House is spending too much. Democrats say the Senate is spending too little. Senate Republicans have cited the influx of federal COVID-19 relief money for schools as reason for avoiding significant increases in state funding, while Democrats say the one-time federal funds won’t be sufficient. 

Senate voucher proposal

The Senate bill would make some families who leave public schools for private schools eligible for “education savings accounts” — state money that could be used to pay for tuition, textbooks and school supplies; or saved to pay for college.

Known in education policy as a voucher program, it’s long been coveted by conservatives, who say it would give families more choice and allow them to escape failing public school districts. But opponents — including teachers unions — say the policy would defund districts most in need of help while serving as a backdoor effort to privatize American education.

Senators had a fierce debate about the provision on the Senate floor Thursday, often raising their voices as they argued for or against the change. The proposal isn’t included in the House bill, and discussion in conference committee is sure to be heated as well.

Students would receive an amount equivalent to the state’s per-pupil education spending — about $13,000 in 2019.

One percent of Minnesota’s student body — about 8,600 students — would be eligible in fiscal year 2023, increasing to 2% in 2025. The program would be open on a first-come, first-served basis to families earning up to three times the income limit for reduced-price lunch.

The accounts would shift about $63 million from general education funding over the next two years, and add up to $11.5 million in new spending.

The Senate bill would also close the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley and create an arts specialist position at the Minnesota Department of Education in its place. Closing Perpich would save about $2.3 million over the next two years, according to estimates by nonpartisan legislative staff. 

This is at least the second time Republicans have sought to close the center, which includes a high school and arts library, since 2017, when a report by the legislative auditor identified pervasive issues with its oversight and operations. 

Teacher licensure and diversity

Minnesota’s teacher workforce has remained overwhelmingly white even as children of color make up a growing share of the population — about 5% of Minnesota teachers were people of color during the 2018-19 school year, compared to roughly 34% of students.

Both the House and Senate bills include planks of the Increase Teachers of Color Act — a bipartisan bill that has been introduced each year since 2017 without passage — but differ in proposed funding levels and reporting requirements.

The bills call for millions in new spending on bonuses for out-of-state teachers of color who come to teach in Minnesota, as well as “grow your own” programs that recruit prospective teachers from nontraditional backgrounds and other programs.

The Senate bill includes language banning last-in, first-out layoff policies for teachers, which are common in Minnesota school districts. Critics say seniority-based layoffs disproportionately affect teachers of color because they tend to be newer to the profession, thereby hindering efforts to diversify Minnesota’s teacher workforce.

A measure in the House bill would change requirements in Minnesota’s teacher licensing system, which has four tiers of licensure based on educators’ academic backgrounds and professional experience.

The bill would remove pathways allowing teachers to advance from Tiers 1 and 2 to upper-tier professional licenses based on years of experience. Instead, they would need to complete a teacher prep program — which includes traditional college programs and alternative programs from other providers — or submit a portfolio application.

Critics of the proposal say it would add unnecessary barriers to licensure, especially for teachers of color, and potentially strip some teachers of their licenses. Supporters say it’s necessary to ensure the state has a high-quality teaching corps. The measure isn’t included in the Senate bill. 

Student learning and academics

The House and Senate bills both take up literacy and academic standards, but they don’t have much in common.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chair of the Senate Education Committee, says improving students’ reading proficiency is a priority this session, and the Senate bill includes funding for grants for literacy instruction for teachers. The House bill requires schools use an existing funding source.

The Senate bill also takes aim at the ongoing social studies standards review, which has been a subject of lengthy debate this session, chiefly around issues of the nation’s fraught racial history and other contentious issues. State law requires the Minnesota Department of Education review academic standards — which are broad requirements for what K-12 students learn in public schools — every 10 years.

An early draft of the social studies standards released in December was criticized by Minnesotans of varying backgrounds and political affiliations for historical omissions and perceived bias. 

Student mental health and school climate

Student mental health has been a top priority for families, educators and lawmakers this year. The stress of the pandemic and social isolation caused many students’ mental health to worsen, and COVID-19 made it difficult for many to get help.

The House and Senate bills use different strategies for increasing mental health support for students, with the House creating a new funding stream for support staff and the Senate increasing an existing funding formula.

Special education

The cost of teaching children with disabilities has been a growing burden for public school districts over the years.

Districts are required to provide services for students with disabilities but don’t receive enough money to cover those services, resulting in a funding gap of more than $758 million in 2019. The House bill includes language aimed at reducing this so-called cross-subsidy. 

The House bill also includes a measure intended to address another problem area for public schools: charter school reimbursements. If a student with disabilities enrolls in a charter school, that school can bill their home district for the cost of transportation, teaching and other services. Minneapolis Public Schools pays charter schools more than $20 million for special education services every year, the Star Tribune reported in 2019.

Charter schools

The House and Senate bills both include language regarding charter school oversight. They propose a timeline for the state and charter school authorizers — entities responsible for charter schools — to fix issues identified in charter schools.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota 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.