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Senate hikes education spending with unanimous K-12 vote
The Minnesota Senate has unanimously approved legislation to increase state spending on schools by $761 million. The K-12 education finance bill lawmakers passed Thursday night provides significantly more money for schools than Gov. Pawlenty's budget or the House education bill. The Senate plan also stands apart by requiring a statewide tax increase to cover the cost.

St. Paul, Minn. — DFL leaders in the Minnesota Senate say their education bill delivers the kind of money school districts have been waiting for since 2002. Most of the new spending is added directly to the per-student allocation to districts, which has been frozen at $4,601 for the past three years. That basic funding formula would increase five percent the first year of the biennium and four percent the second year.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer, chairman of the education budget committee, says the bill provides an adequate level of funding.

"The 5 percent and the 4 percent number are going to stop the cuts that are going on in our school districts and stop the program reductions that are going on in our districts and stabilize the funding," he said. The Senate bill restores inflationary increases for special education and preserves the formula for funding schools with high poverty concentrations. The legislation also includes $93 million for school districts to experiment with a merit-pay system for teachers.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, likes the bill's approach.

"It at least keeps our schools from going backwards the way they have for the last three years and sets us up for doing better in future years for our schools," he said.

State lawmakers have been under a lot of pressure this year to help out public schools. The bipartisan Senate bill delivered more than the competing finance plans, but not enough to satisfy several education organizations.

That didn't sit well with Republican Sen. Gen Olson of Minnetrista, who praised the bill's generosity.

"Perhaps you've been getting the same e-mails that I've been getting from education organizations telling you to vote against the bill because it's not enough. If you ever needed any further proof that no matter how much we put in it, it will never be enough, we've had that evidence this year," she said.

Gov. Pawlenty's budget includes a $488 million increase in state aid for schools, while maintaining his pledge of no new taxes. The Republican House trimmed other parts of its budget, namely health and human services, in order to get $622 million in new education spending. Those plans also rely partially on local property tax increases.

The DFL-controlled Senate is now poised to increase income taxes on the state's top earners to fund its education spending.

Sen. Kelley says education funding will impact the end-of-session negotiations in several conference committees.

"The Senate has said that we won't use cuts to health care as a way of financing money for our schools. So that will be an issue. And the House doesn't seem to be able to agree on using gambling to pay for schools. So the issue will really be health care and raising taxes as a way to keep this commitment to our schools," according to Kelley.

Senate and House negotiators could begin working through their competing education bills as early as next week.