Your questions about Minnesota’s $525 million education funding boost, answered

By: - May 20, 2021 7:00 am

Gov. Tim Walz visited a White Bear Lake elementary school on May 18, 2021 to announce the state’s plan to use $75 million in federal COVID-19 funds for summer learning programs. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

The $525 million increase in education spending that Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders agreed to Monday is a far cry from lawmakers’ initial proposals — and just a framework that leaves lots of work ahead.

The budget deal is a “numbers only” agreement, so legislators still have to develop detailed spending plans, finalize policy language and get Walz’s approval before the fiscal year ends June 30.

In initial budget proposals, the House DFL pushed for $772.5 million, Walz wanted $745 million and the GOP-majority Senate asked for $152.1 million in new spending. Republicans cited the influx of federal relief funds as their rationale for keeping school funding flat. 

Still, those proposals give some insight into how the last leg of the budget process will play out. Here’s more on what the budget target means for education spending and what’s next at the Legislature.

What will the $525 million be used for?

The education budget bill will likely include a 2% increase to the general education funding formula — the complicated equation that sets minimum funding levels for school districts — for both 2022 and 2023. DFL lawmakers pushed for the increase, while the GOP opposed it.

That increase would amount to roughly $400 million in new spending over the next two years, leaving about $125 million for other proposals.

The leftover funds could cover a number of priorities, like efforts to diversify Minnesota’s overwhelmingly white teacher workforce. 

Both the Senate and House budgets included funding for planks of the Increase Teachers of Color Act, which has been introduced each year since 2017. They differed in funding levels, however: The House bill dedicated $23.3 million to teacher recruitment and retention programs, while the Senate included $10 million.

The House bill also included $70 million to help school districts cover costs of providing required services for students with disabilities, and $17.2 million to create a new aid formula for school districts to hire counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses.

The Senate bill called for $16.4 million to increase a funding formula used for school security and support staff, as well as a number of grants including $6 million for literacy training for teachers and $1.5 million to promote digital well-being.

Senate Republicans also included a new voucher-style program called “education savings accounts” in their education budget bill that would add up to about $11.5 million in new spending. The program — which would give families state money to pay for private school tuition, textbooks and school supplies — is opposed by DFL lawmakers and unlikely to move forward.

What would the 2% formula increase mean for schools?

The formula sets per-pupil funding at $6,567 this year. A 2% increase would bump that up to $6,698 per student in 2022 and $6,832 per student in 2024.

School districts should be able to avoid layoffs with the formula increase, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said at a news conference about the budget deal.

Many districts had been preparing to cut teaching positions and programs as a result of dwindling enrollment and rising costs during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, South Washington County Public Schools was planning to lay off 150 teachers to close a $9 million budget shortfall, the Star Tribune reported

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the union representing more than 80,000 teachers, said the budget target doesn’t allow for a long-term investment in public schools. Lawmakers need to “break this two-year cycle of budget drama” by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Minnesotans, Specht said in a statement.

“This budget should stem the tide of harmful local budget cuts, but educators throughout the state want to be able to promise their students and parents that their local school will have the resources to meet the needs of all students for years to come. We can’t do that today,” Specht said in a statement.

The two-year budget approved in 2019 also included a 2% increase to the formula for both 2020 and 2021. 

What about the federal COVID-19 relief funding?

The windfall from the American Rescue Plan Act — President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package — made budget negotiations easier by allowing legislative leaders to sign off on spending boosts that Walz and the DFL wanted while avoiding tax hikes opposed by the GOP.

The federal package includes $1.3 billion for K-12 education in Minnesota, most of which will go directly to school districts. It can be used for measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools, strategies to address student mental health and learning loss, and to hire support staff like nurses. School districts have to spend the money by 2024.

On top of that, the state received more than $2.8 billion in relief funds, some of which will go to schools. Walz announced that $75 million from that sum will be used for summer learning programs to help students recover academically from the pandemic. He had previously urged the Legislature to pass a $150 million summer learning package, which Republicans balked at.

Of the $75 million, $34 million will go to providing academic and mental health support for students through expanding summer programs, creating community partnerships to provide tutoring and mentoring and scheduling field trips. Another $20 million will be spent on providing preschool for 4- and 5-year-olds. The remainder will go to mental health grants, tutoring services and adult education programs.

What’s next?

Legislative leaders set a May 28 deadline for lawmakers to finalize detailed budget plans, and a June 4 deadline for policy decisions. They’ll likely return to the Capitol sometime in June to approve the budget bills.

Legislators have to get Walz’s approval on the budget bills by June 30 or they risk a government shutdown.

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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.