New ideas abound for education

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators are like imaginative students brainstorming for a class assignment, brimming with education proposals before they return to work Wednesday.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators are like imaginative students brainstorming for a class assignment, brimming with education proposals before they return to work Wednesday.

Some members of the new DFL-controlled Legislature believe school districts should receive more basic state aid because that is the main classroom funding source and the best way to tackle escalating operating costs.

There are hopes the public school funding formula will be tweaked to help rural school districts with declining student enrollment. And there is a growing call to implement an all-day, everyday kindergarten program across the state to give all students an equal chance to succeed in school.

Some legislators say extra attention should be paid to pre-kindergarten programs, while others see a need to provide more higher education funding so that college students can afford tuition to Minnesota universities.

"I think everybody has their own ideas," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, who as chairman of the E-12 Education Budget Division must prepare one of the Senate's two main education funding bills.


Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who releases his two-year budget plan in mid-January, has not detailed his education proposals. But the Republican governor recently told reporters he wants to increase funding to schools, put more accountability in the classroom and place greater focus on academic results.

Pawlenty said his message to those seeking new funding for a host of budget areas, including education, will be: "Let's just not measure how much dough we're spending. Let's measure whether it's making a difference in terms of better results."

Pawlenty has said that one of his education priorities will be to make high school more rigorous. Short of outlining specific proposals, Pawlenty said many Minnesota children do well in elementary school and middle school, but then their academic performance "flattens out like a pancake" when they reach high school.

Education funding requests will be plentiful during the session, in part because finance officials project the state revenue surplus at nearly $2.2 billion. But some lawmakers are warning education advocates not to get too excited.

"There won't be enough new money to take care of all the requests, because education alone could swallow all that and still have an appetite," Stumpf said.

Lawmakers should take a comprehensive approach as they decide what education programs to spend money on this year, said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown. She is chairwoman of the House Education Finance and Economic Competitiveness Division.

"We have to take an assessment of what the basic needs are in education throughout the state, and we have to make the decision how to most wisely and fairly spend the money," she said.

Some rural lawmakers would like to see changes in the way local school levies are collected. A school operating levy doesn't tax farmland, but school building construction levies affect farmers, Sen. Steve Dille said.


Dille, R-Dassel, said the McLeod West school system in his legislative district can't pass a school levy in a referendum because farmers who would have to pay more taxes on their farmland keep voting against it.

Changing the way taxes are collected on local levies would help small school districts and limit financial burdens on farmers, Dille said.

Still other lawmakers from outside the Twin Cities want the Legislature to consider a more comprehensive shift in how schools are funded. Schools currently receive state aid based on the number of students enrolled, a formula that tends to benefit growing districts.

Rep. Lyle Koenen said districts with declining enrollment would benefit from a per-section formula instead of per-pupil funding. However, the Clara City DFL'er said that is probably more than the Legislature can tackle in 2007.

Koenen said any education increases might have to come from the projected budget surplus or from savings in other areas.

"I don't see enough willingness in the caucus to start raising taxes, so it will be done within budget constraints," he said of his fellow House Democrats.

The Legislature should provide additional funding for small school districts struggling to pay their operating costs, said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar.

"Fuel and insurance have gone way up, and they're not getting the money to replace it," he said.


Special education is among some legislators' concerns. While school and state officials have complained that federally promised special education funding has not been sent, there is a problem with state funding, too, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker said.

School officials are telling him that since 2003's budget deficit, state spending on special education has been frozen, but costs continue to rise. His home district, for instance, is getting about 67 percent what it should receive, meaning some of the money is being taken from other programs.

"There isn't any cutting corners or foolish spending when it comes to special ed," Howes said.

While much of the education talk is about grades through high school, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, won't let higher education be ignored.

"Tuition is the big topic," he said. "It was the big topic during the election. And it should be. There is a lot of money going into the higher education system, but it doesn't seem to be enough."

Rukavina, the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee chairman, said state college and university funding "has been ignored since Rudy Perpich was governor." Perpich left office 1991.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system proposes to raise tuition 4 percent each of the next two years, while the University of Minnesota is looking at a 4.5 percent increase each year. Both are less than half of some of the recent annual tuition increases.

Pawlenty has proposed offering two years of tuition-free college for high-achieving high school students, but some DFL lawmakers would rather offer that to economically disadvantaged students.


Higher education officials say they've talked with individual lawmakers and are optimistic the Legislature will see the value of their institutions to the state's economy. They hope that will be reflected in new funding to keep tuition in check and continue research projects.

"No one has said, 'Go away. This is not within reality,'" said Donna Peterson, University of Minnesota associate vice president for government relations. "They have all given us the indication they are hopeful they can make investments in higher education this time."

Capitol Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

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