By Tim Pugmire
Minnesota Public Radio News
ST. PAUL — State lawmakers have begun scrutinizing Gov. Mark Dayton's spending plan for public education, the first piece of his budget proposal to be introduced in bill form.
During a House committee hearing Tuesday, state Rep. Paul Marquart, the chief sponsor of the bill mostly praised the governor's approach, which would provide more than $344 million proposed in new spending for public schools. But Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, also found some fault with it.
Marquart, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, told committee members that he's honored to be carrying the bill, because it lines up with many of the panel's goals.
"Does the author agree with all provisions in this bill? No," Marquart said. "But Governor Dayton's bill certainly moves the state in the right direction towards a better overall workforce, a better economy and is a great start I believe for this committee as we go to put together an omnibus bill that's going to benefit this entire state."
Marquart highlighted $44 million designated in the bill for early childhood education scholarships, which could benefit an estimated 10,000 children, and $40 Million for all-day kindergarten. He said those pre-school investments have proven track records of increasing student performance and closing the gap in standardized test scores between white students and students of color.
Additionally, the bill boosts the basic funding formula for all schools by $52 per student. It also would provide new money for special education, English language instruction and teacher evaluation programs.
Following the hearing, Marquart explained that his main disagreement with the governor's proposal is that it didn't include anything to try to equalize the funding disparity between property-poor school districts and property-rich districts.
"In the last 10 years, the disparity between the low and the high revenue districts has increased by 67 percent, and the governor's bill really does not address that issue," Marquart said. "So, that's an area of real focus that we're going to have to look at."
Republicans on the committee agreed. State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe said the state's contribution to local operating levies hasn't kept pace with inflation. He said that's put many rural school districts further behind their counterparts in the Twin Cities metro area.
"My thought was to tie an inflation factor to that, which there isn't right now, to the operating referendum, so that you gradually close that gap over a period of time, rather than continue to see it widen, especially for the rural districts," Gruenhagen said.
But some legislators aren't as eager to tinker. State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul told the committee that he thinks the governor's proposal is sound and logical. Mariani compared the interconnected provisions of the plan to the legs of stool.
"If you pull one leg off of a stool, then the stool doesn't stand," he said. "So, I think whatever we do, Mr. Chair, in terms of making adjustment to the governor's logic here, that we remember that there is a logic, and whatever adjustment we make we know we're going we have to put another leg on the stool, if you will."
Dayton also weighed in on the funding equity issue. He told reporters that legislators are welcome to make changes, but he cautioned that such changes will require them to spend more money.
"Equity is in the eyes of the beholder," the governor said. "Unless you have a lot of money to facilitate that change in formula, you get winners and losers, and the losers are unhappy. But if they can find a way to do it and do it successfully then more power to them."
Republicans have also criticized Dayton for leaving out $1.1 billion needed to deliver delayed payments to Minnesota school districts, money that previous budget deals held back.