E-12 education bill that might have been

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No shifts. No cuts. No new Minnesota Miracle — yet.

That’s the good and bad news regarding the E-12 education finance bill, HF2, as far as its sponsor, House K-12 Education Finance Division Chairwoman Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), is concerned.

As amended by the conference committee, the bill that funds school districts and charter schools, early learning programs, special education services and the Education Department — and comprises nearly 40 percent of the state’s budget — was passed May 13 by the House 85-49 and the Senate, 49-16. It awaits action by the governor.

Greiling is grateful the bill would hold education funding steady at $13.7 billion for the 2010-2011 biennium, and $14.14 billion the following biennium, as originally proposed by the House. It also adopts the Senate’s position to exclude House accounting shifts that would have delayed $1.8 billion in state aid payments to school districts.

Republicans expressed concern that the bill doesn’t increase money for schools as Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposes.

“We know there’s not enough money in here,” responded Greiling, who co-chaired the conference committee with Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer). “Schools are cutting because we haven’t kept up with inflation since 1991.” She quoted a letter from the Minnesota Rural Education Association: “This conference report is the best case budget scenario schools are looking at in this historic budget deficit session.”

Although the bill includes use of $500 million in federal stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — more than the $275.6 million the House had proposed — Greiling said she fears that without new tax revenue, which the governor has steadily opposed, cuts to schools could still be forthcoming.

“That’s the whole problem,” she said.

NMM out

Greiling is “bitterly disappointed” that the education funding reform proposal known as the New Minnesota Miracle was not adopted. These provisions would have relieved property taxpayers of roughly $800 million to $1 billion in levies in favor of state aid; created several measures to make funding more equitable among all school districts; and increased basic per pupil revenue from $5,124 to $7,500. It featured an “innovation revenue” provision that would have included two of the governor’s priorities: taking Q comp statewide and a “Pay for Progress” incentive that would give districts more money depending on students’ test scores.

None were intended to take effect until 2014.

Reforms don’t satisfy all

Although Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) supported the House position as a conference committee member, he didn’t sign the report.

“There’s a big gap between where this bill is and where it could be,” he said. “It lacks mandate relief, cuts $185 million from the governor’s education budget and lacks reform.”

Greiling said the bill does include some of the governor’s recommendations and other reforms he approves. These include significant charter school changes and $750,000 each to the Reading Corps and the Math and Science Teacher Centers, to be funded by reducing the education department budget by about 3 percent, or $1.5 million.

Other reforms include new testing and accountability measures that provide better feedback for classroom teachers and more information about student performance. Significant and hard-won special education changes and mandate reductions are included, as is a provision allowing school districts to create site-governed schools, whereby teachers and parents create charter-like schools within districts.

A highly disputed alternative path to graduation would be created for students who cannot pass the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma math test while the role of high stakes testing is evaluated over the next five years.

A Quality Rating and Improvement System for child care facilities and a study of state services for young children, to be developed by the departments of education and human services, is also included.

Late-night deal nixed

Shared services, an idea the House, Senate and governor all like, turned out to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Greiling said at a May 13 conference committee hearing, referring to a near-deal reached after conferees paired up to negotiate various provisions in the wee hours the previous day.

That bill would have included key Senate positions such as pre-kindergarten “scholarship allowances” for low-income parents and a consolidated levy that the Senate advocated, in exchange for the House’s New Minnesota Miracle. Funding would have come from home school mandate reduction, cuts to agencies, state academies and the education department, plus the governor’s recommendation to cap and freeze integration revenue.

A compromise shared services provision would have been included. The original Senate version would have required school districts to use a consultant to find savings through cooperative purchasing and sharing services such as information technology with other districts, who would be paid a percentage of any savings. The House version proposed a Web site, coordinated by the Office of the State Auditor, to congregate ideas and resources from school districts and regional cooperatives already sharing services.

Greiling suggested that bill would have appealed to the governor more than the one he’ll see.

However, when a shared services amendment was added to a different conference committee report, that issue was taken off the table and the education agreement disintegrated.

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