School funding ideas meet deficit realitiesMinnesota schools and teachers hope more state dollars will be directed their way this year, but an economic downturn may mean they could face budget cuts instead.
By: By Scott Wente, Minnesota State Capitol Bureau, Lake County News Chronicle
Minnesota schools and teachers hope more state dollars will be directed their way this year, but an economic downturn may mean they could face budget cuts instead.
In advance of the upcoming 2008 legislative session, key lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are indicating there will be little new spending as the state looks for ways to fix a projected $373 million budget deficit.
Disappointed by what they saw as lackluster school spending increases approved in 2007, coupled with a record number of school levy votes last fall, education groups and some legislators wanted to boost general state aid this year.
“Just because the budget forecast is poor doesn’t mean our school needs have changed,” Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said. The statewide teachers' union believes at least a 3-percent increase to the basic school funding formula is needed for next year--on top of a planned 1-percent hike, Dooher said.
But the projected budget deficit and greater focus on issues such as transportation spending mean schools probably will have to wait until 2009 to see any major finance changes, said LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, the top senator on education funding.
Stumpf and others say lawmakers could look at many areas to actually cut state spending when they return to the Capitol Feb. 12, including in education.
“That could be part of the mix,” he said.
Republican Pawlenty also has hinted that new spending will be scarce this year. In a recent speech, Pawlenty said the state will continue to make small changes in school aid from year to year, but he urged local school board members from across the state to think about education needs 20 years from now and how that system should be funded.
Pawlenty called the current school funding system “largely broken,” adding that incremental per-student state aid increases are not the solution.
“It ain’t the future and it’s not really the fix,” Pawlenty told the Minnesota School Boards Association.
The governor will have a series of education reform proposals for the upcoming session, spokesman Brian McClung said. It is “unlikely” Pawlenty will support cutting school spending to help erase the state budget deficit, McClung added, noting schools were spared massive budget cuts five years ago when the state faced a $4.5 billion deficit.
“From the governor’s perspective, K-12 education funding is a high priority and it’s unlikely that that is an area that might end up in a package to balance the budget,” McClung said.
To be sure, lawmakers will discuss education funding in the coming months, even if they do not spend more this year. Stumpf said much of the education debate is leading up to 2009, when a new two-year state budget must be drafted.
“I think some issues you want to continue to talk about so they at least stay before the legislative body,” said Stumpf, chairman of the Senate E-12 Education Budget Division.
That includes looking at ways to overhaul the education funding system of state aid, local property taxes and other revenue. A legislative task force has been studying the issue and is expected to release its recommendations next month.
Funding for public pre-kindergarten through high school makes up $13.8 billion of the state budget; lawmakers last year increased school aid by $800 million.
Top Democratic lawmakers have said the Legislature should focus this year on improving the state’s economy. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the best use of state revenue would be to expand early childhood education programs.
“I believe that the most strategic investment in education would be (pre-kindergarten),” Pogemiller said. “We should make a strong commitment there. That will make a difference to our state.”
Pogmiller added that he doesn’t know “whether we will have the resources.” He called the suggestion “kind of a hope and a wish.”
Many lawmakers already believe schools will not see new funding this year.
“We’re not going to give them any money. There isn’t any,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican and House education committee member. “It’ll be more of a policy year.”
Another education proposal would call for a task force to study incentives for new teachers to obtain master’s degrees in their fields. Urdahl said only one-fourth of teachers with a master’s degree teach the subject for which they earned the degree.
“We have high-quality teachers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be better,” said Urdahl, a retired teacher.
Some education issues may be the subject of debate but no action this year, including Minnesota’s participation in the often-criticized federal No Child Left Behind law.
Some lawmakers want Minnesota to back out of No Child Left Behind. Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, told Capitol reporters recently some of his caucus members will push for that, but Pawlenty and many legislators say the law just needs to be overhauled.
“Whether it goes anywhere or not time will tell,” Senjem said of ending Minnesota’s involvement with the federal policy. “But I think we need to have that conversation. Is that program really doing what it ought to be doing to advance the education of kids within our state?”
Some school officials, faced with balancing their districts’ budgets in light of escalating personnel costs and declining student enrollment, said the state is not doing enough.
Wente is a staff writer for Forum Commications Co., owner of the Lake Coun ty News-Chronicle.