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Minnesota Senate approves education cut

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota senators voted to chop public school budgets $273 per pupil Tuesday while opting to expand a program that pays teachers based on performance instead of seniority.

Those on the winning side of the 37-29 vote were not happy to be cutting schools, but said a massive state budget deficit left them no choice.

"This bill expects more from our educational system and gives them less resources to carry it out," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, chairman of the Senate Education Finance Committee.

"There is no way to sugar coat this," Stumpf added. "This is a reduction to our education system. ... There will be some real pain out there."

The bill was supported by DFL Sens. Mary Olson of Bemidji and Rod Skoe of Clearbrook.

While Stumpf's bill trims education 3.2 percent, Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to up spending 2.2 percent and House Democrats would keep spending about the same as in the current budget. Specifics on the House bill are due next week.

The Senate cuts $484 million out of the current public school budget.

The House and Pawlenty both propose delaying some state payments to schools until the next budget, which begins in 2011. Stumpf admitted that will be part of the discussion when differences among the plans are negotiated, but senators did not support the plan.

Republicans lined up against the bill, joined by some Democrats. It was the Senate's first budget bill of the year and Stumpf said the rest may be tougher to pass.

Lawmakers are writing a two-year budget that would face a $6.4 billion deficit if not for federal economic stimulus money, higher taxes and program cuts.

Included in the bill are provisions to expand Pawlenty's pet education project, which he calls Q Comp, that pays teachers based on their performance, not the traditional system of paying based on how long a teacher has been employed.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, failed on a 39-27 vote to eliminate Q Comp.

Murphy's proposed amendment would have diverted money away from Q Comp and given school districts an additional $75 per pupil.

"The results have not provided any better test scores for students," Murphy said. "When you have programs that have marginal or nonexistent benefits, get rid of them."

But Stumpf said that while he used to oppose Q Comp, he now backs it with a provision he included in the bill that provides small, greater Minnesota school districts money to apply for the program.

Stumpf said few districts outside of the Twin Cities are involved in Q Comp because it is too costly to apply for the program.

"We want this program to be a statewide program," he said.

Provisions in the bill include:

-- The state would develop more online teaching tools local districts could use.

-- An institute would be established to help train principals.

-- Expanded summer education programs would be available to students between their eighth and ninth grades.

-- A new state office would be established to coordinate early childhood resources and funding.

-- Pre-kindergarten pilot projects would be allowed in Otter Tail, Itasca, Sterns, Benton, Sherburne and St. Louis counties beginning in 2011.

-- Some state mandates on school districts would be suspended in hopes that money can be saved.

-- A law that allows voters to initiate or revoke a school district referendum would be overturned.

-- Some funds that now can be used only for specific uses would be allowed to be used for general education funding for the next two years.

-- School boards would be required to publish fewer annual reports.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.