Senate education bill shifts funding to reading

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate wants to divert some education funding to help children read by third grade, but critics do not like how the plan takes money from other needs.

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate wants to divert some education funding to help children read by third grade, but critics do not like how the plan takes money from other needs.

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said that the education budget bill's aim is to "put a laser focus on reading."

Overall, the bill would spend about $14 billion in the next two years, the largest chunk of the $34 billion state budget.

The state's general education payments would rise $50 per student each of the next two years under the Republican bill, adding $133 million to school districts. However, Democrats say the bill also cuts about $35 million from other areas of education.

Senators passed the bill 36-25 on a party-line vote Thursday, over Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's objections.


Senate Education Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said her bill would reform Minnesota education.

"Money alone is not the answer," she said.

But money is a big part of the bill.

It freezes school salaries for the next two years, including not allowing cost-of-living raises.

Also, the bill forbids teachers from striking over pay.

When raises are allowed in two years, at least half of a teacher's increase would be based on performance, using student achievement as a guide. The bill eliminates the traditional tenure system of teacher pay, based on how long a teacher has held the job.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said she opposes the pay and union limitations, comparing them to similar Wisconsin actions. She called the bill "an assault on the collective bargain process."

"This bill really hammers teachers," added Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.


Olson's plan caps several education funds and transfers money to reading education.

Among those funds is one established to integrate schools. That change cuts $63 million, mostly to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis districts.

Democrats said that while those three districts eventually could be helped by increased reading education, that will not happen for four or five years. In the meantime, the districts would be short of money, critics said.

"Minnesota is experiencing a statewide increase in diversity and in the number of children living in poverty," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote in a letter to Olson, adding that this is not the time to cut integration aid.

Cassellius said the change means Minnesota would drop "our state's commitment to racially integrated schools."

Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said the decision could "gut" budgets in the three districts.

Olson, however, said that she is convinced the districts can improve minority students' reading with money that used to go to them through integration aid.

Integration money would be split among the state's schools, Olson said.


Robling said that once kids read better, "there will be a lot more opportunities for everyone."

Overall, Cassellius said, Olson's bill does not match up well with Dayton's plans. "Neither Gov. Dayton nor I can support this legislation."

The House passed a similar bill early Wednesday. House and Senate negotiators will work out differences and prepare to send a compromise bill to Dayton.

The bill also includes provisions to:

-- Remove requirements that a "safe schools levy" be used for counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and alcohol and chemical dependency counselors.

-- Hold most early-childhood education funding steady.

-- Provide a $1,000 bonus for a teacher who passes a new reading test.

-- Cut state Education Department spending 15 percent, which the education commissioner said would hurt her ability to assist school districts.

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