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GOP details $445 million plan to boost schools

ST. PAUL -- After criticizing plans by Minnesota DFLers to spend as much as $500 million on new education programs, Senate Republicans on Tuesday unveiled an education spending plan of their own.

ST. PAUL - After criticizing plans by Minnesota DFLers to spend as much as $500 million on new education programs, Senate Republicans on Tuesday unveiled an education spending plan of their own.
The GOP proposal would spend about $445 million in the coming two-year budget cycle by increasing per pupil funding by 3 percent each year. That’s $175 per pupil in 2016 and another $180 per pupil in 2017 for the 836,143 students enrolled in Minnesota schools.
State Sen. Sean Nienow, who is chief author of the bill, said the money would not be applied to the current per pupil funding formula because he believes that formula is unfair to many rural and suburban districts.
The state formula accounts for students’ specific needs and districts with a large number of students with certain challenges often get more funding than those that do not.

The Republican plan increases funding with no “strings” or “mandates” attached, said Nienow, R-Cambridge.
“A student is a student, a dollar is a dollar,” he said. “It will be absolutely equitable.”
State Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said Minnesota has a funding formula for good reasons. Discounting the serious difficulties students in some communities face in favor of a “one-size-fits-all” funding approach is unfair, he said.
“You don’t put the plane on autopilot and let it fly on its own,” Wiger said. “That’s not responsible.”
Yet, Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the Senate Republicans’ plan gave district leaders some of the financial support and flexibility they want.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
School leaders are pushing for a $300 per student funding increase in each year of the coming biennium, Amoroso said. That type of increase would help districts address inflationary costs, which state education funding has not kept pace with, he said.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members and Gov. Mark Dayton also have proposed spending as much as $500 million more in the next budget on education. Their proposals target money towards specific programs such as increased access to preschool, school meals, building maintenance, classroom technology and help for struggling students.
Dayton also has proposed increasing the per pupil funding formula by 1 percent per year and Senate leaders have said they want to increase unrestricted district funding but will wait until the next state financial forecast to decide how much.
School administrators and their lobbyists have put a top priority on increasing funding that is not tied to specific programs. They’d also like to see lawmakers link per student funding to inflation, which is unlikely.
The DFLers say they target funding at specific programs they believe will have the best chance of eliminating Minnesota’s achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.
Republicans disagree. They say every district faces different challenges and local school boards and administrators should decide how to best spend their money.
“The Democrat plan comes with all kinds of strings and all kinds of mandated spending,” Nienow said. “We think schools are smarter than that. We don’t think schools need to be told how to spend their money.”
The Senate GOP proposal also would allow districts to opt out of any new programs mandated by lawmakers during 2015 and 2016.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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