3 education issues to watch during the 2022 legislative session

By: - January 28, 2022 7:31 am

Photo courtesy of Shakopee Public Schools.

With the pandemic disrupting schools for the third year and a $7.7 billion budget surplus on the table, education is shaping up to be a high-profile topic at the Legislature this spring.

In last year’s budget, lawmakers boosted spending for K-12 education and early childhood education by more than $500 million each. Now, education advocates and legislators from both parties are hoping this session will be a chance to build on their work last year to improve education outcomes for all Minnesota students — although they don’t always agree on how to get there.

Here are three education issues to watch.

K-12 education funding

Education funding is sure to be a point of contention again this session, as Democrats seem eager to funnel surplus funds to K-12 schools while Republicans so far don’t seem to have a school spending boost on their agenda.

Last year’s budget increased education spending by $525 million over the base level, putting the state’s total education spending at $20.5 billion. The vast majority of new spending went toward increasing the general education funding formula — the complicated equation that sets minimum funding levels for school districts — by 2.45% this year and 2% in 2023.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan’s supplemental budget proposal for the upcoming session includes another 2% increase in fiscal year 2023, at a cost of about $440 million over three years.

The governor also suggests spending about $185 million to reduce the special education and English language learner cross-subsidies — the funding gaps that result from districts providing required services for students with disabilities or students learning English, for which they do not currently receive enough state or federal funds. 

The House DFL also has listed reducing cross-subsidies as a priority, although they haven’t proposed a specific funding amount. Eliminating the funding gaps would cost about $870 million. School districts, the Minnesota teachers union and other education groups have urged the Legislature to act on the shortfalls for years; last year’s budget put $10 million toward the special education cross-subsidy.

Senate Republicans so far haven’t publicly mentioned increasing any K-12 education spending. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chair of the Senate education committee, described their education priorities as a “three-part, back to basics” approach: boosting reading skills through literacy training for teachers, “empowering parents” with school choice options and improving student mental health by addressing issues with social media and screen time.

“We’re seeing education funding going (up),” Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, told reporters. “And yet, test scores are coming down.”

The Association of Metropolitan School Districts, along with teachers union Education Minnesota and other education groups, is pushing to tie the state funding formula to inflation. When inflation is taken into account, the state is spending almost $600 less per pupil than in 2003, said Scott Croonquist, AMSD director.

“School leaders really have a hard time engaging in any long-term planning because they don’t know, from one year to the next, whether there will even be an inflationary increase (to the formula),” Croonquist said.

Constitutional amendment

Legislators are expected to revisit this session a controversial proposal to amend the state constitution with language supporters say will improve Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation racial disparities in education. 

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page introduced the proposal in early 2020, but their campaign was interrupted by the pandemic. It received little play last year, although bills to make the amendment were introduced in both the House and the Senate. 

Their proposal would replace language in the Minnesota Constitution requiring the Legislature “establish a general and uniform system of public schools” with a clause stating that “all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education” and that it is the “paramount duty of the state” to fulfill this right.

To amend the state constitution, legislators first need to approve the language, and then it appears on the ballot during a general election. Ratification would require a “yes” from a majority of voters.

The amendment has attracted a wide coalition of supporters from business executives to nonprofit leaders and politicians across the political spectrum. Both Democrats and Republicans signed on to the bills in the House and Senate.

It has also garnered an equally diverse group of opponents, including the powerful teachers union Education Minnesota. Skeptics say they support the amendment’s goal but worry that the proposal, as written, could affect the state’s public school funding structure or lead to a greater emphasis on standardized testing, which supporters deny.

Child care and early childhood education

Even before the pandemic, Minnesota’s child care industry had been in dire straits for years.

More than 25% of Minnesotans lived in “child care deserts” before 2020, and businesses operated on razor-thin margins. Workforce shortages have exacerbated providers’ struggles to recruit and retain staff in an industry with notoriously low wages — the median hourly pay for Minnesota child care workers was $12.28 in 2020, and $17.06 for preschool teachers.

Quality child care benefits a child’s development in the short-term and is linked to lifelong positive effects on educational attainment, criminal activity, employment and earnings, experts say. It’s key to economic growth as well, by allowing more parents — especially women — to enter the workforce.

The 2021 state budget included a $500 million spending boost for public child care programs and grants to providers. It was an unprecedented sum — but almost entirely from federal COVID-19 relief aid, which isn’t permanent funding. The package included just $24,000 in new state spending on early childhood education programs.

This session, Walz and Flanagan propose pouring millions into programs that help low-income families pay for child care but don’t receive enough funding to serve everyone who’s eligible.

Their recommendations would eliminate the waitlist for the income-based child care assistance program, which has hundreds or thousands of families in any given month; increase the state’s reimbursement rates for subsidized child care, which are far lower than the federal standard; and fund 10,000 additional child care scholarships for Minnesota’s most vulnerable families.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the House early childhood committee, said Walz’s proposals align with House Democrats’ priorities. The House DFL hasn’t put forth specific spending amounts yet, but they have said they will push for bills aimed at paying early childhood educators a living wage and increasing access to high-quality child care.

The GOP-controlled Senate may balk at the funding boosts, however. Senate leaders didn’t mention child care when they unveiled their legislative priorities Tuesday, and when a journalist asked about their plans in that area, Miller said he’d like to focus on child care regulations.

“The main reason (for the shortage of child care providers) is the regulatory burdens that in-home child care providers have,” he said.  “One of the things I think we can do to fix this problem — and we should be able to find some bipartisan support — is reduce the regulatory burden.”

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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.