Minnesota House to vote on education budget

Published 3:40 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ST. PAUL — Lawmakers were debating Tuesday whether to fund all-day kindergarten across Minnesota as the state’s education finance bill headed to the House floor.

House Democrats have made education their marquee issue for this budget year, boosting spending in that area by $550 million compared to the state’s last budget, when the Legislature was controlled by Republicans.

Rep. Paul Marquart, the bill’s author and chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said Tuesday that the key to cutting down a growing achievement gap — and improving the state’s education as a whole — is early learning. His ultimate goal is lofty: 100 percent early reading rates and 100 percent graduation rates by 2027, when next year’s kindergartners will graduate from high school.

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“We’re putting dollars in areas that we know, and in areas that we know have a proven track record in improving student performance,” said Marquart, DFL-Dilworth. On top of fully funding all-day kindergarten, his bill boosts early learning scholarships for poor 3- and 4-year olds by $50 million.

“By starting out early … we are going to get every single child to the starting line at the same time.”

House Republicans have voiced support for some of the funding increases in the bill, but argued that the state should use more new money to add to the general formula — and let individual school districts decide how to use the cash — rather than tie it to specific programs like all-day kindergarten. The House budget adds $209 per pupil to the state’s bedrock funding formula, which would bring it to $5,433 per student.

Democrats have stressed that individual districts can choose not to offer all-day kindergarten. Those that opt out won’t get the state funds dedicated to that programming. About two-thirds of the state’s school districts currently offer all-day kindergarten, but many of them charge for it.

Marquart’s bill establishes regional centers that work with districts to set plans to ensure schools are on the right track to improving graduation and reading rates, and follow up if they falter.

Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, previously said that money — about $4.5 million — should also added to the general formula rather than “funding bureaucracy.”

Unlike the Senate’s education spending bill, House Democrats prioritized paying off about $850 million in IOUs to schools that the state used to balance previous budget deficits. Legislative leaders have been split on that issue since the start of session.

“We told Minnesotans we were going to do that, and Minnesotans want us to do that,” House Majority leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said Tuesday.

The Senate bill also focuses on early learning programs, but only adds $52 to the bedrock school funding formula. Senators are expected to debate and vote on that bill on the floor later this week. Once both proposals have passed, lawmakers from both chambers will iron out the differences between their bills before sending the final version to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature.