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After months of debate, future of education funding to be decided
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The most vocal group is Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union. The union will start running a television ad this weekend showing a biology textbook with pages being ripped out. (Education Minnesota)
A Senate panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on Gov. Pawlenty's proposed education budget. Pawlenty says his budget protects K-12 funding for the classroom. Education groups disagree, but they're not complaining too loudly. They say K-12 schools were largely spared from the deep cuts that hit other areas of the state budget.

St. Paul, Minn. — At a recent hearing of the Senate K-12 education budget division, a common theme emerged among the education lobbyists who testified.

"We recognize that K-12 is coming off much better than any other program. So I don't want to be up here and sound like I'm whining at all..."

"We're supposed to cut and we're supposed to cut back and we're not supposed to complain, and I appreciate that, given the human services cuts..."

"I was raised to say, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all, so let's start with the nice things. I think the governor did a good job of fulfulling a campaign promise to propose a budget that doesn't raise taxes..."

We've got to move from talking about just how much is being spent on education, and start looking at what has the district done to control costs and some of the other things like that.
- Randy Wanke, Minnesota Education League

But Jim Grathwol, a lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Schools, went on to say the governor's budget will cause pain for schools. Pawlenty's budget would essentially freeze the basic per-pupil formula for the next two years.

Pawlenty's budget would also freeze funding for special education, where costs are growing rapidly. It would limit special aid for students with limited English-speaking skills -- aid called LEP -- to five years per student.

Grathwol says the governor would take away some of the money Minneapolis uses to help kids with special needs. He compared the situation to a scene from Star Wars, where the rebel forces are stuck in a trash compactor.

"When you take away and freeze the special education growth, when you take away and put a five-year cap on LEP revenue, the walls certainly are coming closer in. OK, maybe over here on the human services and higher ed, we can already hear the screaming," Grathwol said.

Grathwol says Minneapolis would have to raise property taxes $27 million to maintain the basic formula in the second year of Pawlenty's budget. The governor also wants to wipe out a funding increase enacted two years ago for districts that have small student populations or heavy concentrations of low-income students, like Minneapolis.

Add up all the changes in Pawlenty's budget, and the fact that most districts have declining enrollment, and about half of Minnesota school districts would get less money next year than they got this year. Districts say even if their enrollment is dropping, they have fixed costs, many of which are increasing.

"What I've heard as I've toured the state is that people are not complaining. We're 44% of the state budget, and we are enduring only 12% of the downsizing. So there are school districts who might have specific concerns about certain policy decisions that drove the budget cuts, but overall, the tone is that they appreciate the fact that the governor held the classroom harmless," according to Yecke.

Education groups admit they're in an awkward position. They don't like the governor's budget, because they say it will squeeze schools financially. But they also don't think the public will stomach cries for more funding at a time of private sector layoffs, and public sector budget cuts at all levels.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Metropolitan School Districts Association, says the association's 27 districts would lose $44 million in areas such as special education and community education under the governor's budget.

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Image Sen. LeRoy Stumpf

"Obviously, if you were to ask our board members, they feel that, that the state should find a way to raise some revenue and make sure that schools were funded at an inflationary level. But clearly that's not the political climate we're facing right now here at the Capitol. So when you look at the reality of that political climate and what's going on in other areas, then I guess it becomes more difficult for the education community to scream too loudly," Crronquist said.

The most vocal group is Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union. The union will start running a television ad this weekend showing a biology textbook with pages being ripped out.

"Five years of tax cuts have forced kids to learn the hard way. Programs have been eliminated, kids are squeezed into bigger classes, lessons go unlearned, and students get left behind. Tell your legislators our kids have sacrificed enough. Tell them to raise the revenue our schools and colleges need," the ad says.

Education Minnesota president Judy Schaubach says the union wanted to stress the importance of adequately funding education.

"We know that the public is very concerned about public education, both K-12 and higher education. And we want to be sure that the public does understand with the proposal we're looking at, it will mean real cuts," she said.

A conservative education group says the Education Minnesota ad is misleading. Randy Wanke, of the Minnesota Education League, says school funding increased over the five years the state cut taxes. Wanke's organization is a division of the Taxpayers League, the group that sponsored Gov. Pawlenty's no-tax-increase pledge. Wanke says Pawlenty's budget shields education from most of the pain, yet it doesn't give schools the increase they're used to getting.

"We've got to move from talking about just how much is being spent on education, and start looking at what has the district done to control costs and some of the other things like that," he said. "They've always said, 'It's not adequate,' they've always said, 'It's not enough.' Our response to that is, yes, the funding has been adequate, let's start looking at how we're spending it," he said.

Wanke's group supports a freeze on teacher salaries, a proposal in Gov. Pawlenty's budget that's gotten a lukewarm reception at the Capitol. The governor's budget is likely to be tweaked in the House, and could undergo major revisions in the Senate.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, chairs the E-12 Budget Division. He says if he has his way, the bill that comes out of his committee will restore some of the cuts in programs such as early childhood education, adult basic education and after-school enrichment. He'd also like to reverse some of the education funding changes passed two years ago, when the state took over the entire cost of the basic education formula, shifting about a third of the cost from local property taxes.

He says the change leaves schools at the mercy of the state's financial condition. "Minnesota is the only state that basically has 100 percent; pays for 100 percent of the funding, and education groups are saying we would rather have a better mix - some property taxes, because the property taxes do stabilize it."

But any attempts to reverse the property tax reforms of 2001 will face resistance from Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans, who pushed for the changes.

The chair of the House Education Finance Committee, Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, says the bill that comes out of her committee might soften some of the cuts to early childhood and community education. But she's hoping to just maintain the level of funding in the governor's budget.

"I hope that we don't have any more reductions. To me personally, that would be painful, and certainly will be for the school districts. But we're going to be looking internally at maybe doing some things differently, but it's going to be hard," she said.

Seagren says her caucus' opposition to a tax increase means that there won't be any new money in the mix. Education Commissioner Yecke says the governor isn't budging from his no-tax-increase pledge. She says she'll try to find other funding sources such as more federal money for schools.

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