Minnesota education: Pre-K, English learners focus of 'historic' new spending

With a state surplus budget predicted to be nearly $18 billion, lawmakers in Minnesota are aiming to further their continued investment in new pre-K programming and English-learner student aid for school districts.

With a state surplus budget predicted to be nearly $18 billion, lawmakers in Minnesota are aiming to further their continued investment in education – proposing new pre-K programming and English-learner student aid for school districts.

The Pre-K education omnibus bill, also known as H.F 2497 sponsored by Rep. Cheryl Youakim (DFL-Hopkins), would provide Pre-K through grade 12 educational funding for the 2024-25 biennium, or through the 2026-27 school year.

"This entire bill is about investing in young Minnesota learners," Rep. Youakim said Thursday in the House Education Finance Committee.

Across Minnesota, the bill increases general education funding through a basic formula allowance increase of 4% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, and a 2% increase in FY 2025, while being tied to inflation in subsequent years. Within the package, the increase in general education base funding would be $926 million during FY 2024-25, and an additional $1.89 billion in FY 2026-27.

The inflation escalator is a provision seen as pivotal by both lawmakers and school district lobbyists alike, as inflation remains a concern in nearly all industries around the nation.

"One of the main reasons this budget meets the historic opportunity in front of us with the surplus is because it is an unleashed effort at putting serious funding toward our most fundamental formulas that are the lifeblood for programing operations, contracts and deserved and required services for students with diverse needs," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Willie Jett during a House Education Finance hearing. "This linking is a game changer that starts to provide hope that the system has an automatic lever built in that will allow districts and charters to more confidently budget and educators to more securely plan for the next year."

In total, the bill would spend $16.3 billion in FY 2024-25 and $17.1 billion in FY 2026-27 to fund schools throughout Minnesota. 

New investments

Several teachers, doctors and educational experts spoke on behalf of the bill during the House Education Finance Committee hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, as lawmakers were able to propose amendments.

Currently included in the proposal would be an increase in English Learners (EL) Cross-Subsidy Reduction Aid.

Cross-subsidy aid is the amount of money from a district’s General Fund used to pay the un-reimbursed costs of providing services. The two biggest cross-subsidies that school districts are not reimbursed for are Special Education and EL services, often affecting a district’s general fund drastically.

In the proposal, cross-subsidy aid would increase to $81.7 million in FY 2024-25, and then $272 million in FY 2026-27 – a notable increase from Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget base of $29.4 million (FY 2024-25) and $33.2 million (FY 2026-27).

Under the current proposal, general education and special education combined spending would total $702.2 million in FY 2024, and $938 million in FY 2025, resulting in 47.8% of Minnesota schools' cross-subsidies funded.

"For too long schools have been meeting the needs of our students receiving special education services without the necessary dedicated funding. This budget makes a significant dent in that underfunding," Jett said.

Additional social services spending include an extra $85.2 million in FY 2024-25, and $154.9 million in FY 2026-27 for targeted pre-K programming, affecting some of the youngest learners in the state.

Adult special education would also receive additional support, extending special education instruction to age 22, while providing $9.6 million in FY 2024-25, then $10.1 million in FY 2026-27 in for school districts.

New investments would also be made in providing both menstrual products and Naloxone, which can help reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, for free in schools – a budgeted appropriation of $3.6 million in FY 2024-25, and $3.7 million in FY 2026-27 would cover the costs associated with the products. 

The bill would also include several provisions that do not involve funding appropriations, but could nonetheless prove contentious when it comes time to compromise with its companion Senate version, including:

  • Requiring a district or charter school to offer an ethnic studies course, and to provide ethnic studies instruction in elementary and middle schools by the 2027-28 school year;
  • Requiring a school district to offer Holocaust and genocide education as part of its social studies curriculum for middle and high school;
  • Requiring a school district or charter school to pay all employees full wages and benefits for scheduled work hours during an e-learning period;
  • Prohibiting an employee or agent of a district, including a School Resource Officer (SRO) or police officer contracted with a district, "from using a prone restraint that restricts a pupil’s ability to breathe or communicate distress, places pressure on certain body parts, or results in straddling a pupil’s torso.";
  • Limiting the use of recess detention, and requiring districts and charter schools to notify a parent within 24 hours of using one; and
  • Banning a district from using "time-out" punishments, and requiring a district to notify parents if they have;
  • Excluding any summer term hourly worker unemployment insurance cost from a school district’s annual levy for its unemployment insurance costs – a move that could affect a district’s ability to produce summer programming.

Proposed changes

Representing what he described as his constituents from small towns who "sort through policy on the weekdays and sit together in church on Sundays," Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls), presented what amounted to an entirely different funding package as a delete-all amendment on Thursday.

"In the communities, I represent we are struggling with divineness … We’ve had enough of the outside interest groups determining $250 million policies," Rep. Kresha said before the committee Thursday.

Rep. Kresha noted some of the provisions within the bill would "tie the hands" of several smaller-sized districts, and "commercialize reading" within schools.

"When we make policies that tip the scales one way or another, it makes our jobs as representatives very difficult," Rep. Kresha said. "We are opening the doors for people to put vague terms in curriculum, and find ways to do more damage than we’ve already done to our kids."

A roll call was requested by Rep. Kresha, ensuring each member's vote would be on record. The amendment failed along party lines with a vote of 7-11.

"Your amendment woefully falls short of our goals," Rep. Youkaim said in response prior to the vote. "Our surplus provides us with a historic opportunity to provide stability to our schools, and to provide them with the tools they need. That’s what we’re achieving with this proposal, and what will leave our committee."

The funding package was ultimately approved along party lines on Thursday during its last education committee hearing, then re-referred to the House Tax Committee – meaning lawmakers will continue to discuss and potentially make changes as they attempt to conform it with Senate language, and it progresses to the House floor, then eventually Gov. Walz.