Divided legislature takes different approaches to education spending

The Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives have both passed their own versions of an education omnibus bill that sets the education budget for the next two years. The divided Legislature has to find common ground on the spending proposals and decide what level of state school funding school districts across Minnesota will receive before a May 20 deadline, according to the Star Tribune.

The Star Tribune interviewed me for this article, but my comments did not make it into print. Below are excerpts from the article along with commentary I shared during my interview.

“The Senate budget will be crippling,” said David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state’s largest.

Senate Republicans in the nation’s only divided Legislature counter that their budget increases spending 5% from the current biennium to the next, and that the Democrats’ House budget requires tax increases that would hurt Minnesota families and business.

The Senate bill fully funds current commitments and makes new investments for the upcoming school years. The House bill promises more funding, but the most important difference between the two bill proposals is that the House’s dollar amount is dependent on steep tax increases that impact workers and families. These tax increases, including a very unpopular gas tax increase, have not passed yet, which leaves the House bill making unrealistic promises to schools with money that is not even available. The Senate bill, however, is working with real money and does not rely on new tax increases whether they are statewide (like the gas tax proposed by Governor Walz) or local school property taxes.

Under the House bill, the school funding disparity between metro school districts and rural school districts in Greater Minnesota would increase by four percent. Under current law, metro schools receive nearly $3,000 more per pupil than rural schools, and the projected impact of the House bill would increase that funding gap.

The key issue is how much in per-pupil spending the state should direct to districts. House Democrats and Walz proposed increasing the per-pupil amount by 3% in 2020 and another 2% in 2021. The Senate plan bumps the spending by a half-percent each year.

As we think through how to best support our students, it’s important to remember it’s about more than money. We need to focus on what works for our learners and not think a dollar amount will make education more equitable.

Numerous research indicates little relationship between increased per pupil spending and improved academic outcomes. New York spends over $20,000 per student, but the Empire State’s K-12 educational performance on national assessments is less than impressive. The District of Columbia also has high per-pupil spending, but students continue to fall well below the national average in math and reading proficiency. Even Minnesota, a state that spends above the national per pupil average, continues to struggle with one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. Per-pupil, inflation-adjusted K-12 education spending in Minnesota increased by more than 80 percent between 1972 and about 2010, and while there were small changes up and down, “SAT scores adjusted for participation and demographics” over the 38 years remained the same.

The Star Tribune continues:

Democrats want to direct hundreds of millions more for special education and enact paperwork changes meant to lessen the administrative burden. The Senate GOP bill does not call for additional funding.

That last sentence is misleading. The Senate bill—which, if enacted, would be the largest school spending law in Minnesota history—increases overall spending so that hundreds of millions of dollars are directed to special education. The bill also includes improvements in special education procedures and paperwork that were suggested by Minnesota schools and that received bipartisan support.

The state’s new teacher-licensure system is also a point of contention. Democrats in the House, backed by the union, want to repeal a two-year-old state provision that allows educators to achieve full licensed status without going through the state’s formal teacher-training process.

The House bill rolls back bipartisan teacher licensure reforms without giving the newly adopted system an opportunity work. These changes would cut off a pathway for teachers of color to enter the workforce and rebuild barriers that prevent qualified professionals who want to teach from entering the classroom. I understand firsthand how this would be a step backward. I have a valid teaching license issued by the state of Arizona. I taught full time while going through a Teacher in Residence program, and I passed all the required content and pedagogy exams. The licensure system recognizes my qualifications, despite them being from out-of-state, and streamlines the licensure process for me to re-enter the classroom. Minnesota faces a very real and complicated teacher shortage, and the newly adopted system is helping us address this problem by attracting and retaining effective educators.

The goal of education is to ensure all students have access to a quality education and are set up for future success. We want all students to be better served, and we must carefully consider what that looks like.