As a long-time teacher and as a parent, education is often at the forefront of my mind. As a legislator, my energies can become scattered between the Avian Flu outbreak, funding for nursing homes, and the hundreds of bills that come across my desk, but the legislature’s work on education is always at the core of why and how I serve.
This Wednesday, the legislature took up two important bills that will shape how our schools are financed and managed. The Education Policy and Finance Omnibus bills both passed the Senate after healthy discussion, and I am confident that both bills make important steps toward making our schools the strongest in the nation.
As I have mentioned in the past, my major initiative to better finance maintenance needs for our crumbling school buildings in Minnesota is included in this bill. Another appropriation will address the state’s shamefully low number of counselors and support staff in Minnesota schools, and funding for career and technical education will help to bridge the gap between high school and the workforce.
One of the big themes this session is the importance of early childhood education, and I’m pleased to report that the Senate has earmarked $65 million to significantly expand our state’s school readiness model. This will allow Minnesota to increase its support of publicly funded pre-school programs, allowing parents more flexibility while giving our youngest learners a stronger start. Programs like these are proven to reduce our achievement gap and help at-risk Minnesotans prepare for Kindergarten.
There is still more we must do. We must address the inadequate level of funding currently earmarked for the general fund formula. I have held discussions with leadership and my committee members to share concerns that we are not doing enough for students. A 1% increase over each of the next two years doesn’t even match inflation, so my colleagues and I will continue to work with Governor Dayton and others to ensure our schools don’t have to cut staff and programs while the state enjoys a budget surplus. The final budget number has yet to be determined, but unfortunately the House proposal contains an even lower funding level than the already-modest Senate version. House provisions that include tax cuts for the wealthy and one-time funding for transportation threaten to eat away at available general fund dollars. We will have to fight hard to ensure our schools remain strong.
Despite some inevitable disagreement, there was strong bipartisan agreement among Senators on many provisions. The Education Omnibus Policy bill passed with an overwhelming 53-13 vote, and will bring reforms to teacher licensure, raise student accountability, and reduce the number of tests that burden students and get in the way of actual teaching time.
I will be appointed to the Education Conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills. It is my goal to work with them and improve on the strong bills passed by the Senate this week. Together we must continue to make good progress toward our shared goal of strong schools and successful students.