Fact Check: Walz ad on education funding leaves out details

Education policy has become a battlefront in the Minnesota governor's race as student head back to school amid drops in test scores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, DFL Gov. Tim Walz's campaign has launched its first television attack ad of the fall, criticizing Republican challenger Scott Jensen over education funding while lauding Walz's own record. In both cases, the ad leaves out important information.

Criticism of Jensen

Walz's ad features a single speaker: Mary, whom the campaign describes as an Apple Valley teacher. After praising Walz's education funding proposals, she turns to the main claim of the ad.

"Scott Jensen would cut education to cut taxes for the wealthy," Mary says, a statement that needs clarification.

The ad correctly quotes Jensen from a May 27 appearance on Minnesota Public Radio. The interviewer asked Jensen whether he would support more or less money for education, to which Jensen responded, "Less money. I think it's a black hole."

This week, Jensen explained the comment to reporters.

"I think sometimes people have made an investment and said, 'Gee whiz. I bought a house. It’s nothing but a black hole. I keep pouring money in it and I still can’t get it right,'" he said. "Come on, folks. Can we just grow up and deal with the issues at hand? We’re trying to help our kids and we’re failing as a system in Minnesota."

Jensen's record on education funding is mixed.

During his single term in the Minnesota Senate from 2017-2021, Jensen voted for two K-12 budgets that included funding increases. The second one, in 2019, came after the divided Legislature struck a late deal with Walz. The Senate approved the education budget unanimously.

As a candidate for governor in May, Jensen encouraged legislative Republicans to block $1 billion in additional K-12 funding. The money was part of a grand bargain of tax breaks and new spending that Walz and legislative leaders agreed to, but lawmakers could never agree to the specifics and the bills stalled.

Jensen supports a voucher program, which would let parents use part of their child's per-pupil funding from the state to enroll in a private school. That would effectively cut funds for the districts that students leave.

Jensen said some state money would have to stay with the child's home school district, but he did not give a breakdown of the amounts.

"I have no problem at all with a given school district finding itself one day with no students at all because everybody left, everybody knew there was a problem, and they were going to get their kids educated," Jensen told reporters at a news conference this week, as he rolled out a 10-point education plan that included the vouchers.

The other part of the claim is that Jensen would cut taxes for wealthy Minnesotans, a reference to Jensen's support for getting rid of the state income tax.

Minnesota collected $14.1 billion from individual income taxes in the year that ended June 30, according to state data. Jensen has said he would consider making up the shortfall with a half-point increase in the state's 6.875% sales tax plus budget cuts that average 5-10% across state government.

While eliminating the state income tax would benefit all tax filers, upper-income earners would see the most benefit under Minnesota's income tax system.

For Minnesota married couples, the first $41,050 of income is taxed at 5.35%. On the other end, income above $284,810 is taxed at 9.85%.

Walz's record

The ad also promotes Walz's record on education, noting that he "invested in summer catch up programs for students hurt by the pandemic and fought to fully fund our schools."

When it comes to Walz's record, this is not the whole story.

It's true that Walz put money into summer school programs after the COVID-19 pandemic, using $75 million from a pot of federal COVID-19 relief that the Legislature gave him control over.

It's also true that Walz has proposed more state aid for K-12 schools in each of his budgets. The term "fully fund" is harder to assess because Democrats and Republicans do not agree on what it means.

Yet, while the ad focuses on funding, it ignores performance. Minnesota students' standardized test scores have fallen from the first year of Walz's term, state data indicate.

In the 2021-22 school year, 45% of students were proficient in math and 51% in reading, both decreases from before the pandemic.

Jensen blames Walz's handling of the pandemic for the drop in performance. On Monday, we will examine Jensen's claims about low test scores and a Walz assertion about classroom time missed during the pandemic.

FOX 9 Fact Check: Here's our rating system
True: accurate information that requires little or no additional context
Needs clarification: mostly accurate information that leaves out context that would be helpful to voters
Not the whole story: the information presented leaves out a significant amount of context that could lead voters to a different conclusion
Misleading: partial information presented in a way that misleads voters
False: inaccurate information, or information presented out of context