House GOP finalizes bid in education funding debate as opponents, advocates warn of cuts

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — House Republicans have finalized their bid in Minnesota's education funding debate, setting up a clash with Democrats calling for the state to invest a bigger chunk of its projected fiscal windfall in children and schools.

The GOP majority's education budget, which passed 69-61 Saturday largely along party lines, earmarks an extra $157 million for schools and low-income families. That money, along with policy changes, will help students without squeezing state coffers, said House Speaker Kurt Daudt.

"We wanted to show in our budget that you can invest in priorities, and we're investing new money in K-12 education. ... And we're doing all of that while still respecting the taxpayers," the Crown Republican said.

But Democrats and education advocates say the bump in funding won't keep up with inflation, forcing schools to lay off teachers and increase class sizes. Democrats in the House and Senate insist Minnesota should devote more of its projected $1.9 billion budget surplus to education.

"We don't face fiscal stress in Minnesota," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. "There is no better, stronger investment that we can make as a people than investing in our ... student population of young Minnesotans."

Lawmakers have major gaps to bridge as they finalize an education spending plan in the last weeks of the legislative session. The Senate's budget has about $361 million more for schools, and Gov. Mark Dayton has called both the Senate and House education proposals unacceptably low.

House and Senate legislators are passing on the Democratic governor's $343 million plan to offer high-quality voluntary preschool to every 4-year-old. They're instead opting for early education scholarships for low-income families and more money for schools to operate pre-kindergarten programs or contract with private providers.

Debate on the House bill lasted more than four hours Saturday. The proposal would make teacher performance the main factor in layoff decisions rather than seniority. Republicans say that will lead to more effective educators staying in schools, but Democrats and the state teachers' union argue districts can already negotiate their own layoff policies.

Republicans have proposed a .6 percent bump in general education funding in each of the next two years. School officials and advocacy groups have pleaded for bigger increases, arguing inflation will gobble up the roughly $98 million in extra "formula funding" the House would provide. Dozens of parents and children rallied at the Capitol on Saturday to demand a bigger education budget.

House Education Finance Chairwoman Rep. Jenifer Loon left the door open for more money as negotiations play out.

"I think between the House and the Senate numbers, you will find a pathway forward with a very responsible education finance package that does what we need to do," the Eden Prairie Republican said.

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