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Lawmakers pump $485 million more into schools

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Democrats say new money they are putting into education will boost the economy by giving the state a better-educated workforce.

"This is a very bold and ambitious plan..." House Education Finance Chairman Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. "It will make a difference in the lives of every single student in this state."

The $16 billion education budget for the next two years, up $485 million from current spending, provides money for all school districts that want all-day kindergarten, funds preschool scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds from poor families, increases per-pupil state aid, find ways to improve minority students' educational performance and better prepares students for the workforce, Marquart said.

"Frankly, we've put our children's education on the back burner for far too long," said Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia. "This bill takes serious steps to fix that problem. We're making long overdue investments that are paired with strong accountability measures to make sure taxpayers get the most bang for their buck."

House and Senate negotiators merged the two bills their chambers originally passed and returned the new bill for approval. The House passed the bill 78-56 late Saturday and the Senate followed on Sunday 41-26.

All-day kindergarten already is offered in some schools, but often parents must pay tuition. The education finance bill provides enough money that every Minnesota district can offer it at no additional local cost.

Marquart said 57,000 will benefit from all-day kindergarten, which would provide better education opportunities for students.

At the same time, scholarships will be available to poor families with 3- and 4-year-old preschool students. The program will provide up to $5,000 per year tuition.

Marquart said that Minnesota's biggest problem is the "achievement gap," and the bill funds programs to improve minority and poor students' achievement, with a goal of 100 percent career and college readiness by 2027. Economists say the achievement gap could cost Minnesota $5 billion.

"That's like losing five Vikings stadiums," Marquart said.

"The most important thing we can do to grow our economy over the long haul is provide every child with a high-quality education," said Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing.

The bill overturns a law that requires high school seniors to pass a test before graduating.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said removing the graduation tests weakens the value of a Minnesota high school diploma.

Among provisions in the education finance bill are those that:

• Increase state aid 3 percent per pupil, another $156.

• Require schools to develop plans for students to improve their achievement.

• Provide regional centers to help schools improve education.

• Increase from 16 to 17 the earliest age students may stop attending school.

• Allow schools keep a supply of epinephrine auto-injectors and gives school personnel permission to use them on children with certain medical conditions.

• Forbid schools from terminating coaching contracts only on the basis of parental complaints.

• Give special education programs $40 million more.

• Establish an Indian education director to serve as a liaison with the state's American Indian tribes and evaluate Indian education in the state.

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.