When Republicans took over the Minnesota State House in January, politicos across the state were unsure how well the divided branch of government would work. But Senate Democrats and House Republicans rolled up their sleeves and got to work for Minnesota—and while it wasn’t always smooth, ultimately they managed to find compromises and pass legislation on some of the most contentious issues facing the state.
While some key initiatives, like tax and transportation reforms, failed to advance during the 2015 session, the purple Legislature produced an education bill robust enough to make some of the bluest Democrats and reddest Republicans praise its potential for Minnesota’s public schools.
The bill would invest $400 million in new money to increase the basic per pupil formula by 1.5 percent next year and 2 percent the year after that—still below inflation but higher than the original requests from Gov. Dayton, the House or Senate. The bill would also expand early learning programs targeted to low-income families, maintain and repair school buildings, increase Indian education aid and provide increased access to college in the schools.
Beyond investments, the bill would also make significant policy fixes, like meaningful and long overdue changes to our teacher licensure system to help our schools attract effective, experienced and diverse teachers from other states. It would improve teacher mentorship programs, allow teachers in hard-to-staff schools to receive greater compensation and limit the amount of time students spend on state and district tests.
There was a lot to applaud in this strong bipartisan bill. “This is a good bill. We have a lot of good projects in it,” commented DFL Sen. Alice Johnson during consideration of the legislation. “This bill delivers!” said DFL Education Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Wiger. Legislators, parents, teachers, students and advocates across the state were eager to see Gov. Dayton sign it into law.
Instead, Gov. Dayton chose to veto the bill. Why? Because it did not include $173 million to fund his proposed early learning program. Although messaged by the governor as extra money for public pre-K for every Minnesota kid, the proposal would only provide half-day opportunities at schools that have the space and resources to opt in. In other words, the governor’s $173 million effort would provide three hours of programming for some, but not all, 4-year-olds.
While nearly every education expert—and Minnesotan, for that matter—supports Gov. Dayton’s vision of high-quality universal early learning for all kids, not everyone supports his strategy to get there. Like many, it is my hope that we use investments in early learning to accelerate our efforts in closing the achievement gap by serving our most underserved kids first in quality, full-day, flexible programs, starting at infancy.
After we’ve accomplished that, then we should work to provide high-quality early learning opportunities to all children. The governor’s proposal takes the opposite approach, spending limited resources on a less beneficial part-day pre-K program for only 4-year-olds, with the goal of gradually covering more kids by age—not by need.
Legislators and advocates from all political backgrounds have lamented the veto of a meaningful piece of bipartisan education legislation—the result of more than six months of hard work and negotiations—all to fast-track an early learning plan that has not been properly vetted through the legislative process or supported by school and community leaders. “He wants what he wants,” Doug Grow wrote of Gov. Dayton in a MinnPost commentary earlier this week, and his veto “comes despite the fact that the Legislature has had little time to digest this major education initiative.”
When our leaders reconvene to negotiate a new bipartisan education bill, they must set all politicking aside and remember that the collective goal is to provide a great education for all kids. Undoing several months of good work from what was a divided Legislature is simply unacceptable. I’m hopeful our governor will join policymakers to use the special session to make an even stronger education bill. Or, he can simply sign the one on his desk.