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Governor's education budget pushes changes in teacher pay
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced the outline of his education budget Thursday, with one goal being to encourage pay-for-performance for the state's teachers. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Gov. Pawlenty Thursday outlined a plan to increase spending on K-12 education over the next two years by roughly $352 million. The proposal would boost the per pupil funding formula, give school boards the authority to raise more local tax money and reward school districts willing to restructure teacher pay.

St. Paul, Minn. — Using the media center at Vadnais Heights Elementary as a backdrop, Gov. Pawlenty stressed that education funding is a top priority in his budget proposal. His spending plan would increase the state's basic funding formula by 2 percent each of the next two years. That translates to an additional $202 per student over the biennium. State budget problems kept the formula amount frozen for three years. Pawlenty says schools need the funding increase.

"As school costs go up and pressures on costs go up, more funding being available to schools is an important part of maintaining, supporting and hopefully enhancing our schools," said Pawlenty.

The centerpiece of Pawlenty's education plan is an incentive program to reform teacher salary structures. The Republican governor wants to end the traditional practice of paying teachers based on years of service and college credits. Instead, he wants teacher salaries linked to their performance in the classroom. Pawlenty's budget will include $60 million in incentives to help interested school districts make the switch.

"I think we can do a better job -- as a state and as a nation -- treating teachers as professionals rather than assembly line workers from the 1940s," said Pawlenty. "There are a number of enhancements that I think we can make to the way that we treat, and consider, and evaluate and pay teachers, that will be more modern and be more productive, particularly as it relates to student achievement and student learning."

Judy Schaubach, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, said she's awaiting more details of the pay plan before endorsing or rejecting it. But, she said, basing it too much on student performance would be problematic.

"There has to be realistic ways to look at this question of student performance. It has to be fair. Some people are teaching special education students. Some people are teaching students that are far behind to begin with," Schaubach said.

The money would be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Pawlenty says the money could cover 50 percent of the students in Minnesota. But it's unclear how many school districts could benefit, or how many might be interested.

Ted Blaesing, superintendent of the White Bear Lake school district, says he wants to see more details.

"When you talk about abolishing a system that's been in place for decades, and replace it overnight, that's a very major shift in thinking," said Blaesing. "I don't know where that's going to play out, but it's certainly going to give some strong motivation to districts like ours, and districts all over the state, to take up the topic."

Blaesing is more enthusiastic about the possibility of local leaders getting more levy authority. The governor's plan would allow school boards to raise local taxes without voter approval to keep pace with special education costs, deferred maintenance and other local needs. The cap would also increase on the amount districts could raise through a local referendum. Metro area school districts support the plan.

Democrats immediately took aim at Pawlenty's reliance on local levies for things they think the state should be paying for. A few years ago, the Legislature made it a priority to take on more school funding costs, but districts have been seeking help from property taxes with state funding mostly stagnant.

Pawlenty is "passing the buck to the school boards who are desperate so they are willing to raise these property taxes," charged Roseville Rep. Mindy Greiling, the top Democrat on the House K-12 Finance Committee.

Greiling also says the proposal would give unfair advantage to some districts.

"If you have property wealth, then you can pass levy referendums without impacting your homeowners so much. If you don't, then your homeowners have to pay massive property tax increases to fund education, and that's what the governor is doing here today," said Greiling.

The state is still facing a $700 million budget deficit, and Gov. Pawlenty did not specify where the money for his education initiatives will come from. He says while education spending has been elevated as a priority in his budget, other areas will be "de-elevated." The rest of the spending plan is due out later this month.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)