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Minnesota education advocates want more state money in 2015

BY CHRISTOPHER MAGAN St. Paul Pioneer Press Educators and their advocates have a long wish list they want Minnesota lawmakers to address when they return to the Capitol Tuesday and at the top is a very familiar request -- more money. Just where t...

BY CHRISTOPHER MAGAN
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Educators and their advocates have a long wish list they want Minnesota lawmakers to address when they return to the Capitol Tuesday and at the top is a very familiar request - more money.
Just where that new money should go depends on who you ask, but popular ideas include: preschool, teacher evaluations, school facilities and tying the state per pupil education formula to inflation.
School leaders are hopeful lawmakers will give them more local control over school taxes and decisions about how education dollars are spent. They also want lawmakers to pay for numerous “unfunded mandates” such as special education and the new comprehensive bullying prevention law.
Both Democrats and Republicans say education is a top priority for them this legislative session. Minnesota lawmakers have approved a number of programs, from teacher evaluations to funding all-day kindergarten, to help close the state’s achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.
Republicans want existing dollars spent wisely and to broaden reforms that will improve student achievement and give parents more school choices. Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members want to build on recent successes and target new dollars at specific programs that have proven successful.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said a predictable per-student funding formula is key for all school districts to plan their budgets efficiently. State funding lagged for years before getting a half-billion-dollar boost from DFLers in the last biennium, but much of that money was targeted at specific programs.
“It really is the most important funding stream for schools,” Croonquist said of the per-pupil education formula. “It is difficult for school districts when every year they have to start off with the assumption they are not going to get any more.”
Both Twin Cities and rural school leaders are pushing for lawmakers to take action on 2014 task force recommendations to help districts raise money to build and maintain their schools.
Now, two dozen districts have the authority to raise significant money for building and maintenance without voter approval. The task force’s recommendations include new tax authority for school boards and new state funding directly for school facilities.
Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said the current facilities funding system puts rural districts at a unique disadvantage.
“Currently, greater Minnesota schools are in a lose, lose, lose situation,” Nolan said.
Districts can either let maintenance build up, tap the general fund to address it or ask voters for more money, he said.
Educators across the state also are pushing for more money for preschool, which has been shown to improve school readiness and academic performance in the later grades.
In addition to school finances, lawmakers are expected to take up a number of different policy changes.
Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president, said her union of 70,000 educators has put forward a “problem-solving agenda.” Part of that agenda calls for increased support for students in communities with the biggest challenges.
Union leaders want schools in struggling communities to be able to provide students with better access to things like health care, housing and mental health services.
“Basically, what full-service community school does is help me the teacher meet the needs of students so I can focus on teaching,” Specht said.
Teachers’ priorities also include reducing the number of tests students are required to take, Specht said.
With Republicans back in charge of the Minnesota House, lawmakers are expected to debate a number of different education reforms. Some reforms could win over DFLers who want to overhaul how teachers are licensed and make it more attractive for them to stay in the profession.
But there’s a roadblock for the most controversial legislation that would remove seniority from consideration when districts are forced to cut staff. Called Last In, First Out, or LIFO, supporters of the change say it will allow administrators to keep the best teachers in the classroom.
Union leaders have fought the bill in the past and Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the legislation after a Republican majority approved it with some DFL support in 2012.
The Pioneer Press and Forum News Service are media partners.

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