By Danielle Killey
Forum News Service
ST. PAUL – School districts and school boards would have more control over how to use state funding under a budget proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton, officials told legislators Wednesday.
The proposal also would increase funding for special education and early childhood programs, and provide money to districts to offer all-day kindergarten.
“The governor has set forward a bold vision,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told members at a joint meeting of the Minnesota House and Senate’s early childhood through high school education finance committees.
Cassellius said the plan would help schools meet key goals such as preparing children for kindergarten, hitting reading benchmarks in elementary and high school and upping graduation rates.
The proposal also would add funding for teacher evaluations and support centers.
“We are looking for a budget that supports teachers as well as students,” Cassellius said.
The proposed budget would spend $344 million over two years to pre-kindergarten through high school programs.
It would add $52 per student to schools’ funding on average, bringing the total to $5,276 on average. The exact amount varies by school.
The plan offers a simplified funding formula for the future, School Finance Director Tom Melcher of the Minnesota Department of Education said. He said the changes would provide more flexibility and local control over spending. That is because pieces that are separately funded now, such as gifted and talented programs, would be rolled into the overall formula.
“The idea here is school districts and school boards know their students best,” Cassellius said.
A major piece of the governor’s proposal is $40 million in new funding for all-day kindergarten. The money would be available to school districts that choose to offer the program free to students.
Melcher said about 54 percent of districts currently offer all-day kindergarten, but he expects if state funding were available that number could be closer to 85 percent by 2015.
The governor’s plan also would spend $44 million to provide up to 11,000 new scholarships for early childhood education and $125 million for special education programs.
“The governor is recommending a major investment in special education funding,” Melcher said.
Other pieces of the proposal include $10 million for teacher evaluation, $8.9 million to extend English language learning programs and $1 million for bullying prevention.
The plan’s overall K-12 education funding would be about $15.5 billion, about $1 billion more than the 2012-2013 amount.
The governor’s plan would add a number of resource centers throughout the state, focusing on greater Minnesota, where teachers and administrators could share information about teaching methods, evaluations and other professional topics.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, said the state should look at better bridging the gap between rural and urban schools’ funding. Other legislators agreed.
Lawmakers in the committee also said they would like to discuss options for teacher evaluations.
Cassellius emphasized that the governor is open to new and different ideas on the budget proposal and that this plan is a starting point.
Democratic legislative leaders were lukewarm in their response to the governor’s plan after he released it Tuesday, but many said they were happy with the increased funding for and focus on education.
By Danielle Killey