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Education bill about more than education

Minnesota Reps. Mary Franson of Alexandria and Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls talk on Tuesday, April 23 before debate begins on an education finance bill. (Photo by Don Davis, Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL -- A debate about education funding goes beyond helping individual students: There is widespread agreement that a better education system would help the economy.

However, there is less agreement about how to achieve those improvements.

Representative Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, tied the economy and education together Tuesday as the Minnesota House voted 83-50 to approve a $15.7 billion, two-year funding bill for schools.

Many Republicans opposed the bill, saying it would place too many mandates on schools and remove a state law requiring students to pass a test before graduating.

Here's how the three members representing parts of Douglas County voted on the bill: Mary Franson, R-Alexandria - no, Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck - yes and Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake - yes.

"As a retired teacher, I know how tough it can be when schools don't get the support they need," said McNamar. "And frankly, these past few years the Legislature has not done a good job of supporting our schools. This year, we're changing that. We want education to be a top priority and these investments prove that."

McNamar added that under the bill, the West Central Area School District would receive an increase of $94,454, or $132 per-pupil in fiscal year 2014 (1.3 percent) and an increase of over $361,987 or $483 per-pupil in fiscal year 2015 (4.8 percent).

Statewide, much of the $550 million of increased spending would go to early-childhood education, including all-day kindergarten, a concept that Marquart said is the basis of improving Minnesotans' education.

"We are going to get every single child to the starting line on time," said Marquart, House education finance chairman.

Education does not end there, he said. "When our students leave high school, on day one they will be ready for success."

Marquart, whose bill picked up some Republican votes but mostly was backed by Democrats, said the vote was for historic education finance reform. "No ambition is too bold, no goal is too high."

The chairman quoted Federal Reserve officials as saying the Minnesota economy could get a $5 billion-a-year boost if what he sees as a more effective education system is implemented. And, he said, the early years are when to start strong education practices.

"Economically speaking, early childhood programs are a good investment..." Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a speech last year. "Studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits, reflecting the many contributions that skilled and productive workers make to the economy."

A coalition of Minnesota businesses agrees with Marquart and Bernanke that early-childhood education is important for the economy, but has taken to the airwaves fighting the House bill's provision overturning the graduation test.

Coalition leader Charlie Weaver called the Marquart plan "the elimination of state expectations for student achievement on the state's reading, writing and math standards to earn a high school diploma."

Added Representative Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton: "I think we are dumbing down the diploma."

Among the major goals Marquart laid out is to make sure by 2027 every student graduates from high school.

Minnesota schools carry a 76 percent graduation rate, the chairman said. The Marquart plan would require school districts to prepare plans with a goal of graduating every student.

The state would check progress districts make to graduate all students, have all students reading by third grade and see better achievements for minorities. If a district fails three straight years, the state could take over school administration.

Marquart said the current graduation test is not working, citing a large number of college students who need to take remedial classes.

His bill would require school districts to begin in middle school preparing students for college or a job by the time they finish high school.

The House bill provides enough money for every school district that wishes to establish all-day kindergarten with state funds.

However, Representative Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said some districts do not have the room for all-day kindergarten, so they would be left out.

Overall, Representative Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, was not happy with the House bill, saying it includes too many mandates. "We need to stop acting as the state school board."

Erickson said the bill makes the Minnesota Education Department a "command and control center."

Education spending, the largest single part of the Minnesota budget, would rise $550 million in the next two years under the House Democratic plan.

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.