Charters and small schools win big, as education bill slashes Minneapolis, St. Paul, students with disabilities, integration funding


Is it a bold, necessary reform or a dagger to the heart of urban public schools? Either way you look at it, there’s no doubt the Republican-sponsored state K-12 funding bills headed for votes this week in the Minnesota Legislature would toss out most of what public education leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been working toward for several years.

“We’re on the road to beating the odds in our public schools,” said Heidi Huelster, a member of the St. Paul Public Schools District Parent Advisory Council who testified against the House Republicans’ K-12 bill last week. “But passing this bill puts us 100 steps back when we are so close.”

The House K-12 bill, HF 934, which has passed the Education and Taxes committees and is due in the gatekeeping Ways and Means Committee before heading to a full floor vote, is a stunning rebuke of Minnesota’s current urban public school framework, by most accounts, and a “war on Minneapolis and St. Paul” in some.

The bill would strip racial integration funding for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth schools to the tune of $25 million a year, and caps the growth on state spending for special education needs, a move that will cost school districts in Minnesota’s urban and regional centers an estimated $50 million a year.

That money gets put back into the statewide school formula for a small $50-per-pupil annual boost for schools statewide and an extra boost for school districts with enrollments of 1,000 students or less — mostly small rural districts and charter schools.

The bill also would slash funding for the Minnesota Department of Education by $6.3 million a year — almost a third of the department’s funding, prohibit Minnesota teachers from striking for pay increases, and scrap the state’s permanent teacher tenure system in favor of one that requires teachers to reapply for tenure every five years.

The House Republican bill would also initiate a voucher system using public tax dollars for low-income students to pay for tuition at private schools, allow school districts to lay off teachers without regard to seniority and force the closure of the Perpich Center for the Arts or its transformation into a charter school.

Republicans, led by House Education Finance Committee Chairman Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, ignored Gov. Mark Dayton’s K-12 budget proposal, including his request for funding for all-day kindergarten, and instead are embarking on a course seemingly designed to end the current urban public schools system.

They argue that a 2005 Legislative Auditor’s report shows that school integration aid has not achieved racial integration and is being wasted.

They found allies in the heads of urban charter schools, who testified in favor of parts of the bill.

“We have really stalled out on integration,” said Bill Wilson, director of the Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul. “It’s time to look in a different direction.”

Central Senior High School sophomore Kady Moua, a member of the youth executive board of the East Metro Integration District, told lawmakers that integration aid had helped her and fellow classmates achieve more in a diverse environment.

“I believe all students have the potential to do well, but not all have the invitation to use that potential,” she said. “Integration is that invitation.”

Capping state funding for special education programs mandated by the federal government would force cash-strapped school districts to redirect precious funds away from the general student population to keep those programs going, said Jim Grathwol, lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Schools.

“This bill is clearly picking and choosing winners and losers,” he said. “There are 33,000 students and their families choosing the Minneapolis public schools system, and the choices made here undermine their education.”

If the big urban public school systems, Gov. Dayton’s education agenda and Education Minnesota are the clear losers in this bill, charter schools, private schools and suburban and rural school districts are the winners.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, endorsed many of the changes in the Republican bill, but urged lawmakers to proceed cautiously.

“You are offering significant, positive change,” he said. “But if you want it to be change and not just motion, you need to make sure there is adequate time and thought given to it.”

The Republican-led Senate’s K-12 bill, SF 1030, from Senate Education Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, contains many similar provisions to the House Republican bill, though it would cut integration aid in the second year of the biennial budget instead of right away.

Neither bill is viewed kindly by Dayton’s Commissioner of Education, Brenda Cassellius, who told Garofalo’s committee last week that she looked forward to negotiating a final education bill with the Republican-led Legislature, but that “it does not appear that this is a serious proposal.”

“Unfairly targeting inner-city schools and those charged with educating students with the highest needs is unacceptable,” she said. “It directly harms our efforts to close the achievement gap.”

The senior DFLer on Garofalo’s committee, Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville, was less charitable.

“It’s a very partisan bill helping areas Republicans represent and screwing the heck out of areas represented by Democrats,” she said.