The Potluck

Minnesota Senate passes education budget bill

By: - April 22, 2021 7:43 pm

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, speaks about the education finance bill on April 22, 2021.

The GOP-led Minnesota Senate passed its education finance bill 37-29 Thursday, after hours of heated debate.

The DFL-majority House passed their own education bill Monday. 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 $20.6 billion Senate bill includes $152.1 million in new spending over the next two years, while the House bill totals $21.2 billion and includes more than $724 million in new spending. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill is “light on mandates” and focused on reducing Minnesota’s racial disparities in education, which are among the worst in the nation.

“The mission is kids first, second, third, always,” Chamberlain said. “Certainly educators are important, and that’s in this bill as well — but kids, kids, kids. We do not want to support systems.”

Democratic-Farmer-Labor senators criticized the bill for not providing enough money for schools. It would keep the general funding formula — the complicated equation that sets the minimum level of state funding for school districts — flat over the next two years.

“If there is not an increase in formula — and there’s none here — there will be cuts (at schools),” said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. “There are provisions we support, but the significant problem we have is that it underperforms for needed funds. We can do better.”

The Senate bill includes several parts 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 over the next two years to programs aimed at recruiting and retaining teachers of color, including bonuses for out-of-state teachers of color who come to work in Minnesota, and a grant for the nonprofit Black Men Teach.

Chamberlain says reading skills are a priority this session. The bill puts $6 million over the next two years toward literacy training while urging approaches that are proven effective.

Senators debated for more than two hours a measure in the bill that would allow families who enroll in private schools to be eligible for “education savings accounts” that could be used to pay for tuition, textbooks and school supplies; or saved to pay for college.

Students would receive an amount equivalent to the state’s per-pupil education spending — about $13,000 in 2019. That sum would be subtracted from state funding for the student’s home district.

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. 

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 cost about $250 million over four years.

Discussion about the provision was fierce, with senators often raising their voices as they argued for or against the change. Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who is the president of the Senate, reminded lawmakers to refrain from calling out other senators by name.

Chamberlain said families pushed for the program, which he said would give students — especially students of color — access to better educational opportunities. 

“I’m here to represent those parents. And by god, I will do it. Vote to remove this, Sen. Wiger, and that rests on your conscience,” Chamberlain said after Wiger spoke in opposition of the bill.

Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, offered an amendment to remove the language from the budget bill.

“I find it a bit disingenuous when I hear the continual rhetoric against public schools, when you are a part of the reason why they’re not doing well,” Isaacson said. “I’m frustrated.”

The amendment to strip the voucher language failed.

Debate also grew emotional over a provision in the bill authored by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, prohibiting trans girls from playing on girls sports teams. Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, authored an amendment to take the measure out of the bill. The amendment didn’t pass.

Proponents argue the bill would prevent transgender girls from having an unfair advantage in athletic competitions. But sports researchers, advocates and athletes say the measures are unnecessary and harmful to transgender youth, who are already more likely to experience isolation, bullying and violence at school.

“It’s important to counteract what’s happening on the floor right now. (Trans students) need to hear from us — those of us in positions of influence and authority — to help them know they are seen, they are loved,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

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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.