Senate Republicans propose record-setting direct classroom aid to break through budget gridlock

(St Paul) — Senate Education Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) today proposed record-setting direct classroom aid for Minnesota schools, with almost no costly and complicated mandates, in an attempt to break through legislative gridlock and reach an education funding compromise that could be approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Walz immediately during next week’s special session.

The Senate’s offer includes a 3% per-student funding formula increase next year that would be spent based on decisions made by local school officials according to their own unique needs.

“Three percent is a greater amount than we have seen in 15 years,” Chamberlain said. “Under the Senate plan, it will be followed by a further increase of an additional 1.5%  in the following school year. This far exceeds the original proposals from either Gov. Walz or either body of the legislature.”

According to Senate non-partisan fiscal analysis, this proposal would result in over $500 million more dollars for the per-pupil formula allowance in the first biennium and nearly $650 million in the following biennium. The total per-pupil increase would be $298. These funds are mostly available for any number of locally-determined school purposes.

By contrast, the current House DFL plan is to only increase funding for the formula allowance by $264 million in the first biennium and $432 million in the following biennium. The total per-pupil increase would be just $199. The rest of the funding set-aside for education would be spent by the House DFL on a variety of grant and categorical programs, which result in an uneven distribution of funds to schools across the state and which would be accompanied by several new state mandates.

The offer represents a sincere compromise to finally reach an agreement after several legislative deadlines have come and gone. “Let’s agree to disagree on most remaining items. Now it’s time to simply provide our students, families, and schools with the resources they need to get the job of in-person education done well,” Chamberlain said. “Our schools, teachers, and students are emerging from the unprecedented stress and strain of a pandemic and ill-advised emergency measures. This is not the time for new state mandates and the costs it takes to comply.”

Many items of importance have already been successfully resolved by Senate and House negotiators including a sensible timeline for new academic standards implementation, providing for the successful recovery of special education students from over a year of distance learning, facilitating school meals at the full amount and preventing “shaming” of students who have food debt, establishing a seizure action plan to assist and protect students with this health condition, requiring evidence of results when the Department of Education awards grants, and the funding of a proper defense for an education lawsuit brought against the state.

“Most significantly,” Chamberlain said,  “the House has joined the Senate in mutually agreeing to increase opportunities for potential teachers – and particularly teachers of color or American Indian – to enter the profession, to be mentored, and to be retained so that students will be able to have a wide breadth of experiences, backgrounds, and role-models available to them in their classrooms.” 

Chamberlain said he was prompted to bring forward the historic per-student funding increases during the next two years in large part due to the current gridlock of negotiations. “I don’t know if it is cynicism or game-playing on the part of the House DFL at this point,” he said, “but in its last two offers on the subject, the House is actually going backward by proposing less per-student funding than its original position. They have moved from a two percent increase to only a one percent increase, and I sense we are about to see even that decline because their preference is for large amounts of grant funding to be distributed to a limited number of schools as determined by the Commissioner of Education.”

The Senate offer includes an additional two provisions from the original Senate budget bill:

  • Funding for an expansion of a remarkably successful early literacy instruction training program, called LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), which has been used nationwide and led to improved student outcomes. “Literacy is the equity issue of our time, and it impacts every area from the academic achievement gap, to special education, to discipline,” according to Chamberlain.
  • Funding for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a policy proposal that enjoys widespread support of parents and families but is opposed by political professionals in the state’s teacher’s union. Education Savings Accounts will empower parents with more flexibility and control over their child’s education. With ESAs, the state funds kids, not systems: If a parent chooses to withdraw their child from public school, the state would deposit that child’s share of state education assistance into a restricted, government-authorized savings account the parent could use for approved education-related expenses, including tuition and fees at a different school, online learning, instructional material, and more. ESAs empower parents and have vastly improved outcomes for kids. “Every time Minnesota has brought forward a new choice for K-12 students and families, including open-enrollment, charter schools, and post-secondary enrollment options, the union has stood in the way,” Chamberlain said. “This time is no different, but ESAs are being requested by public school parents whose children are struggling in their current settings and need new and effective approaches.”