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DFL Senate takes its own path on school finance, standards
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Charter school supporters are voicing outrage over a late addition to the bill. As a cost savings, the legislation includes a three-year moratorium on new charter schools beginning in 2004. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
The Minnesota Senate is expected to take action this week on a $12 billion funding measure for elementary and secondary schools. The DFL-backed K-12 finance bill preserves many of the provisions trimmed by Gov. Pawlenty and the Republican House. If approved as written, the bill also sets up battle with the House over new academic standards for public schools.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty and Republican House leaders say one of their budget priorities is to protect K-12 classrooms from cuts. Their budget proposals would keep most classroom spending generally flat for the next two years. But several programs that fall outside the regular classroom, including pre-school, community education and summer school, would take a hit.

The Senate bill would spend $91 million more than the governor or the House is recommending. Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, is chairman of the Senate Education Budget Committee. He says the proposal offers broader funding protections.

"We have basically said that we're going to live up to our commitment to our current law," Stumpf said. "And so, what we do is to fund the programs that we currently have, which are both the general education in our classrooms, as well as many of the related programs that are needed to support that education system."

There are fiscal effects to the repeal and to the form of the replacement.
- Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins

The Senate plan would also provide more money to school districts willing to try a system of paying teachers based on classroom performance, not years of experience. Online learning efforts across the state would get a boost over current funding.

The bill preserves the formula that gives more money to school districts with high concentrations of poverty. The House proposal changes that calculation. Scott Croonquist of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts says schools with large poverty numbers need the extra money.

"It's popular sometimes to say we should just give the same amount of money to every student across the state, and that sounds like it might be fair," Croonquist said. "But in reality it's not, because it does matter if a child is coming from a concentration of poverty area." While many education groups are embracing the Senate spending plan, charter school supporters are voicing outrage over a late addition to the bill. Charters are public schools operated by parents and teachers with greater flexibility than traditional schools.

As a cost savings, the legislation includes a three-year moratorium on new charter schools, beginning in 2004. Steve Dess of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools says the provision could be a major setback to the charter school movement.

"These students and these programs need a chance to proceed," Dess said. "And Minnesota's been the leader in this, giving opportunities for parents and students to choose something that works for them. And we can't let that stop."

Leaders in the House and Senate say they also want to repeal the Profile of Learning graduation standards. But they disagree sharply on what kind of requirements should replace the show-what-you-know system. The House is pushing new back-to-basics standards, while the Senate is looking at a revision based in part on the existing profile.

Members of a Senate committee voted last week to include the revision proposal in the K-12 finance bill. Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnestrista, is a Profile opponent, but she opposes the DFL approach. She also objects to its inclusion in the finance bill.

"I think it ought to be dealt with separately, clearly," Olson said. "I mean it should be done. We ought not to be having that as a part of the discussion."

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, is the chief sponsor of the Profile repeal. He says combining the two bills is consistent with the approach taken in the House, and is an appropriate move.

"There are fiscal effects to the repeal and to the form of the replacement," Kelley said. "So, it does make a lot of sense to be talking about that in the context of the budget bill."

The Senate bill must make another stop in the Taxes Committee before a floor vote.

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