Public schools received a historic boost from the Legislature. Now comes the hard part.

June 9, 2023 6:00 am

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One of the first questions a reporter asked me after Gov. Tim Walz signed the budget to spend another $5.5 billion on E-12 education over the next four years, was: “Will Minnesota schools finally lower class sizes?”

I would have liked to say an unqualified “yes,” but I couldn’t. The hard work has just begun of deciding how to spend billions in undedicated funding to Minnesota school districts. Educators have our priorities, but there are few guaranteed outcomes.

When school budgets all over the state are set in a few months, we hope to see smaller class sizes, more support for the mental health of students, better learning and working conditions and compensation packages that attract and retain educators.

But for most of this year’s education budget, the Legislature handed the ball (in this case a very big ball) to the superintendents and schools boards for final decisions. We’re asking Minnesotans to join us in making sure they don’t drop it.

What happened

The 2023 Minnesota Legislature passed a budget and package of policies that could be life-changing for students and educators, but only if the money is spent well. 

Budget lines don’t refill the pipeline with prospective teachers, or support veteran educators, or fill open jobs for education support professionals. Money can pay for new literacy curricula, but a curriculum doesn’t teach reading — educators do, and right now there aren’t enough of them.

Throughout the session, Education Minnesota and many legislators argued for funding rules that would ensure students would get more one-on-one time with their educators, educators would get pay raises and teachers would have paid time to prepare lessons.

The professional associations of administrators and school board members resisted all of them as intolerable restrictions on their power, sometimes with bad faith arguments about the cost of the programs. They successfully blocked many proposals, like prep time and pay raises, but the Legislature approved others despite the groups’ objections.

Rejecting protests about “managerial rights,” the Legislature ensured that negotiations for the next round of contracts between teachers and their employers will include discussions about the proper ratios of students to educators.

The law now considers staffing ratios a mandatory subject of bargaining. Although many of our local unions will make class size reductions a bargaining goal, they may or may not succeed.

However, there’s no doubt about the size of the increase in the state’s investment in E-12 schools, which includes a 4% and 2% increase in the crucial per-pupil formula in the next two years, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to pay for special education services now covered by the general funds of districts and, for the first time, automatic funding increases tied to inflation (with a 3% cap).

Educators working in unions will use the collective bargaining process to influence how the money is spent and put a priority on expenditures that directly affect the classroom, but that may not be enough.

The families of students and members of the community who support their local schools should stay engaged with their local school districts as budgets are created. Speak up for the programs, buildings and staff you support. Your voice matters.

Of course, the Legislature did earmark some vital parts of the education budget for specific purposes after hearing from educators and parents about the needs in their schools.

The state will provide $64 million in the next biennium for more student support personnel to address the need for counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses and chemical dependency counselors in Minnesota schools. 

Hourly school workers — including paras and special education aides — are now eligible for unemployment insurance in summer, like every other seasonal worker in the state. 

The state will spend $60 million in the next two-year budget to increase the number of teachers of color to reflect the growing racial diversity of students — and spend millions more on teachers licensed to work with students with special needs, filling an urgent and expanding need.

Full-service community schools will receive a $7.5 million boost for two years and then $5 million per year in the future. This will expand a model of schools that puts a variety of health, housing and other supports in the school building where they’re more accessible to students and their families.  

It’s an enormous increase to Minnesota’s commitment to E-12 education, especially at a time when other states have been defunding their schools through private-school vouchers, but it won’t fix 20 years of underfunding at once no matter how the money is spent.

Despite an important step this session to lower the retirement age in the teachers’ pension plans by one year to 65, it’s still higher than average and too old for most teachers to use. It doesn’t reward years of service like surrounding states do. The working conditions in most schools burn out teachers far quicker than age 65. Further improvements are needed as part of a thorough reform of educators’ pensions.

The stakes

The thousands of choices Minnesota’s local school leaders will make with the new state money will have a profound effect on their students and staff, but that’s not all. A failure to quickly improve the classroom experience of students will reinforce the fears of many Minnesotans (including some educators) that the celebrated decisions made in the Capitol won’t filter down and help their neighborhood school.

Minnesotans need to see the new education money spent in ways they can see and feel, or at least hear about from students when they come home in the afternoon. Tucking the money away in a district’s rainy-day fund won’t do it. Neither will replacing the furniture in the front office.

All Minnesotans want their schools to prepare their children to succeed, regardless of their ZIP code, how they look, or the language they speak at home. Now that the session is over, we need leaders at the local level to focus on that goal.

The governor and the Legislature have given Minnesota’s E-12 schools a once-in-lifetime opportunity with stakes that couldn’t be higher. Now the hard work begins.

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Denise Specht
Denise Specht

Denise Specht, a longtime elementary school teacher in the Centennial School District, is president of Education Minnesota, the union of 86,000 educators, primarily in Minnesota’s E-12 schools and two-year colleges. Specht’s parents were both teachers in Buffalo, Minn. She also had grandparents and great-grandparents who were educators.