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2005 Legislature could provide funding boost to education
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State budget problems have kept education spending flat for three years. That's meant lean living in most of the state's 341 school districts, where operating costs continue to rise. (MPR File Photo)
Despite a projected budget shortfall, Minnesota lawmakers appear ready to include more money for public schools when they put together a state budget for the next two years. Legislative leaders are promising the 2005 session will bring a long-awaited increase in the basic funding formula for K-12 education. But disagreements are expected over how much is enough, and whether school reforms should be tied to the new spending.

St. Paul, Minn. — State budget problems have kept education spending flat for three years. The basic, per-pupil allocation has been frozen at $4,601. That's meant lean living in most of the state's 341 school districts, where teacher salaries and other operating costs continue to rise. School leaders and education organizations are now saying enough is enough. Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, says the state has to come through with more money.

"School districts have done all they can to try to identify other streams of revenue through fundraisers, through foundations, through charging fees," Croonquist said. "And they have gone through a series of budget reductions and really not just eliminating extras, they are now in the situation where they're actually eliminating programs that are valued by their communities."

State education officials say a 1 percent increase in the formula would cost $92 million dollars over two years.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he'll propose a spending increase for schools -- he just isn't saying how much. His continued commitment to not raising taxes and the state's ongoing budget challenges could make the money hard to find.

The Republican governor says the additional spending he comes up with will be closely tied to his school reform agenda. Pawlenty is pushing especially hard to change the way teachers are paid. He wants a system that rewards teachers based on their performance, not years of service.

"The system that we have has served us well, but it's 40 and 50 years old in most respects," Pawlenty said. "Time goes by, the years go by; and it has to be updated. Most of the rest of the world gets some kind of reward for performing, not just showing up."

Pawlenty also wants to hold schools more accountable for improving student achievement. He wants to boost the state's teacher ranks by making it easier for scientists and other professionals to get a teaching license if they want to switch careers.

House Republicans are backing the governor's school reform agenda. They also support at least an inflationary increase in education funding. But House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says changes are also needed in the funding formula to provide greater financial equity among school districts.

Most of the rest of the world gets some kind of reward for performing, not just showing up.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

"That is basically a rural Minnesota issue," Sviggum said. "Now, you can't just say rural. A lot of suburbs, the northern suburbs, the Anokas, the Osseos, are very interested in it as well. But we will fight hard for and try to address the fairness of education funding through equalization."

Legislators could start overhauling the funding formula based on the recommendations of a finance reform task force. Gov. Pawlenty formed the group in 2003 to help simplify the state's complex finance system. He wants a new formula based on what students need for a basic education.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says those changes will require more than just an inflationary increase in spending.

"I think we ought to be focusing our ideas on what our schools really need to succeed," Kelley said. "We know what the goals are, and that is to make sure more kids graduate from high school and go on to college, and that we close the achievement gap. We now have to figure out how to take that goal and actually accomplish it. And it's pretty clear that's going to take more money."

Kelley's committee spent a lot of time last year scrutinizing the governor's education commissioner. Cheri Pierson Yecke lost her confirmation in the DFL-controlled Senate on a party-line vote. Kelley says he expects Yecke's replacement, former state Rep. Alice Seagren, will enjoy a relatively smooth confirmation. He says a Senate vote could come early in the session.