Big questions about proposed budget increases for state education

This column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during March, 2019.

Big questions about proposed budget increases for state education


Several big questions come from the budget proposals in education that Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan presented on Feb. 19.

First, how much of what has been proposed will the Legislature agree to? Second, what else will be in the final education package, beyond the governor’s recommendations? Third, what will be the impact of increased spending? In a one-on-one interview, Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker offered reactions to these and other questions.

Having helped develop the proposals, Ricker, understandably was “very excited.” She likes the combination of “substantial additional support for decisions close to the classroom with attention to work we have to do statewide.” Ricker told me she’s “most pleased” by two things: “the amount of support that Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Flanagan have proposed for education” and “the number of people who want us to succeed, and want to help.”

A former public school teacher, Walz followed through on his promises to make education a priority. More than one-third ($733 million) of the Walz/Flanagan proposed $2.18 billion increased “investments” in Minnesota would go to early childhood and K-12 education. The increases are more than double proposed increases in the next largest area of the state budget, which is health and human services. Proposed education increases are more than triple recommended increases in other areas such as transportation, public safety and economic development.

Here’s how most of that additional $733 million would be spent:

—Most of the increased education funding, $523 million, would go into what’s called the “general education formula.” That’s the largest single section of the K-12 budget. The additional funds would produce a 3 percent increase next year and a 2 percent increase the following year.

—$77 million is focused on supporting students with special needs.

—An additional $59 million goes for early childhood education.

—$8 million over the next four years would help support “full service” schools, which offer an array of services to students and families.

—Another nearly $8 million is designated to help increase the number of teachers of color.

It’s too early to know how much of the Walz/Flanagan proposal will be adopted. The state’s budget surplus has been revised down since the recommendations were presented. And Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, speaking immediately after Walz on Feb. 19 said the budget is “unfair, unsustainable, and sets us up for a budget deficit in the near future.” He also explained that in education, “we’re looking for innovation, not just more money.”

One asset that Walz and Flanagan have is a genuinely likable commissioner of education. I’ve known Ricker for many years. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. Asked what her biggest surprise so far as commissioner has been, she smiled: “The amount of time I’ve spent talking about snow and ice!”

While we’ve not always agreed, I’ve found her to be open and willing to consider new approaches. And she’s herself advocated new ideas, such as giving outstanding district and charter educators the chance to lead teacher training programs and giving them opportunities to create new within-district options.

I’m hoping that over the next several years, Ricker will encourage new, potentially more effective approaches in these and other areas.

The late Gov. Rudy Perpich worked closely and successfully with Republicans like House Majority Leader Connie Levi as well as fellow DFLers to produce historic changes. Perpich and the Legislature increased education funding and expanded opportunities via Postsecondary Enrollment Options, and open enrollment.

Additional money and new approaches can help many more Minnesota students develop their talents and achieve their potential. This combination also can reduce current large disparities in high school and postsecondary completion.

I hope Walz, Flanagan and Ricker will help produce fewer stalemates and more success with this year’s Legislature.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome,