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Senate OKs education cut of 3.2 percent

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota senators voted to chop public school budgets $273 per pupil Tuesday while opting to expand a program that pays teachers based on performance instead of seniority.

Those on the winning side of the 37-29 vote were not happy to be cutting schools, but said a budget deficit left them no choice.

"This bill expects more from our educational system and gives them less resources to carry it out," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer.

"There is no way to sugar coat this," Stumpf added. "This is a reduction to our education system. ... There will be some real pain out there."

While Stumpf's bill trims education 3.2 percent, Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to up spending 2.2 percent and House Democrats would keep spending about the same as in the current budget. Specifics on the House bill are due next week.

The Senate cuts $484 million out of the current public school budget.

The House and Pawlenty both propose delaying some state payments to schools until the next budget, which begins in 2011. Stumpf admitted that will be part of the discussion when differences among the plans are negotiated, but senators did not support the plan.

Republicans lined up against the bill, joined by some Democrats. It was the Senate's first budget bill of the year and Stumpf said the rest may be tougher to pass.

Lawmakers are writing a two-year budget that would face a $6.4 billion deficit if not for federal economic stimulus money, higher taxes and program cuts.

Included in the bill are provisions to expand Pawlenty's pet education project, which he calls Qcomp, that pays teachers based on their performance, not the traditional system of paying based on how long a teacher has been employed.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, failed on a 39-27 vote to eliminate Qcomp.

Murphy's proposed amendment would have diverted money away from Qcomp and given school districts an additional $75 per pupil.

"The results have not provided any better test scores for students," Murphy said. "When you have programs that have marginal or nonexistent benefits, get rid of them."

But Stumpf said that while he used to oppose Qcomp, he now backs it with a provision he included in the bill that provides small, greater Minnesota school districts money to apply for the program.

Stumpf said few districts outside of the Twin Cities are involved in Qcomp because it is too costly to apply for the program.

"We want this program to be a statewide program," he said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.