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Split House approves education spending plan
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Rep. Mindy Greiling was one of several Democrats who wore black t-shirts that read "a state is a terrible thing to waste". (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota House has passed its largest budget bill, a nearly $12 billion education funding package. House Republican leaders say the bill aims to hold education harmless in the face of a projected $4.2 billion deficit. DFL lawmakers voted against the bill, calling it a "leave every child behind" education plan. As the House was debating the bill, the issue took an unusual turn in the Senate, where DFL leaders moved $12.5 billion in education spending into the Senate tax bill.

St. Paul, Minn. — The House education bill would fund the basic per-pupil formula at its current level -- $4,600 per student. But it would cut overall education spending about $500 million dollars. Most of that money would come from a payment shift to schools. The rest includes cuts in special education funding, school breakfast programs, money for school libraries and after school activities. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, says the bill minimizes cuts to the classroom.

"We've only had to reduce our budget by about $180 million. Now if you think about other agencies and other areas of our government that are taking much bigger hits, we have truly protected K-12 education," according to Seagren.

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Image Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington

"You can spin it all you want. The fact remains that the Republican majority will be leaving kids behind," responded Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, one of several Democrats who wore black t-shirts that read "a state is a terrible thing to waste".

Slawik objected to the $5 million proposed cut in the state's Early Childhood and Family Education Program. Slawik told Republicans that they're so concerned about keeping their no-tax-increase pledge, that they're willing to cut education programs.

"You have chosen to cut little kids in this state, and ECFE. We have an alternative budget. It doesn't cut little kids. It doesn't cut education," she said.

Slawik and other lawmakers spent nearly nine hours debating everything from Head Start funding to sex education in schools. At the end of the day, the bill passed on a 71-to-60 vote, with seven Republicans joining DFLers in voting no.

The lengthiest battle came over labor law provisions. The bill gives school districts more flexibility to hire private contractors for food, custodial and bus services. It also exempts districts from having to pay prevailing union wages on construction projects.

Lawmakers voted to strip one controversial labor provision from the bill. It would have set a Sept. 1 deadline for teachers and school boards to agree on new contracts, or schools would have been forced to close.

The lobbyist for the state's largest teachers union, Jan Alswager of Education Minnesota, says lawmakers listened to teachers who opposed the early deadline.

"And this provision would have really put a lot of stress in the community and the teachers and actually the state in determining the finances so quickly; we didn't even think that there were enough arbitrators in the state to handle this problem," Alswager said.

Republican leaders say a Sept. 1 deadline would have forced contract resolution before the start of the school year.

The education funding package also contains some policy bills that have already passed the House by wide margins. One would replace the state's Profile of Learning graduation standards with a back-to-basics approach. Another would require public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at least once a week.

In the Senate, DFL leaders have decided to separate the policy from the money. A bill that repeals the Profile is headed to the Senate floor, while the Senate tax committee voted to put education spending in the tax bill.

Education Budget Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, a DFLer from Thief River Falls, says he doesn't recall anything like that in his 22 years at the Capitol. But he says it links education funding with the tax dollars that pay for it.

"This could focus an enormous amount of attention on the issue where the Democrats in the Senate have some real strong feelings. One is funding education," Stumpf said.

Senate DFLers want to fund education at current spending levels, which is about $500 million more than the House bill and Gov. Pawlenty's budget proposal. Their budget plan would raise taxes on cigarettes and gasoline and create a new upper-income tax bracket.

House Republican leaders say putting education in the tax bill will only prolong what's already certain to be a contentious budget negotiation.

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