Senate Republicans, advocates push Walz to back school voucher proposal

    School choice advocates crashed a Walz press conference on the state's newly released revenue report on June 10, 2021. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

    Minnesota Republicans and school choice advocates gathered at the Capitol Thursday to urge Gov. Tim Walz to meet with them about a Senate school voucher proposal.

    The advocates want Walz and Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers to back a program called “education savings accounts” as part of the Senate’s education budget proposal. The Minnesota Department of Education, the teachers union and Democrats oppose the idea, which would take money from local school districts and give it to families to pay for private school tuition and supplies.

    Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, and a group of parents on the Capitol lawn spoke before heading inside to crash a Walz news conference on the state’s newly released revenue report.

    “You go up there,” Chamberlain said, pointing at the Capitol as he addressed the parents. “Do what you need to do and ask, why don’t you (Walz) give these parents the opportunity? Why don’t you meet with them right here, Gov. Walz?”

    Negotiations on the state’s $21 billion education budget — and most other budget bills — have come to a standstill, more than two weeks after the legislative session ended. If lawmakers don’t reach an agreement and get Walz’s approval on a budget by June 30, the state government will shut down.

    Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, speaks at a news conference about his proposal for education savings accounts on June 10, 2021. (Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer)

    The education savings accounts, or ESAs, are a sticking point in education budget negotiations. Chamberlain’s latest proposal includes a 3% increase to the per-pupil funding formula — the complicated equation that sets minimum funding levels for school districts — in 2022 and 1.5% in 2023. That 3% increase is greater than those included in proposals from the DFL or Walz, but his plan also included the ESAs, which DFL lawmakers say are out of the question. 

    Experts say there’s little evidence linking voucher-style programs to academic gains, and low-income students are often left out of education savings account programs altogether. Under Chamberlain’s “education savings accounts” proposal, 1% 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, or about $150,000 for a family of four.

    The advocates gathered alongside Walz inside the Capitol as he spoke about the revenue report showing the state collected $3.3 billion in May, 119% more than forecast. When he mentioned the state’s surplus growing by $1.8 billion, one interjected, “So you can afford (school) choice.”

    Walz said he was meeting with lawmakers about budgets Thursday, including the education budget. The remaining points of contention in negotiations are ideological, he said.

    “I’m still operating under the assumption that to get these 13 (budget) areas to work, we’re going to have to do quite a bit of compromise,” Walz said. “There’s probably not going to be a lot of policy changes because those are the sticking points.”

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native 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.