Minnesota House passes $107 million summer school package

The Minnesota House passed a $107 million summer school expansion Tuesday, targeting schoolkids who have missed months of classroom time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill passed 69-63 on a near party-line vote and heads to the Senate. It would provide funding for field trips, tutoring, afterschool programs, summer preschool and student mental health.

The measure would also send $29 million to districts that were forced into distance learning during the pandemic and lost students to private schools or homeschooling. 

"We are at a pivot point -- if we choose," said state Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis. With a majority of school staff vaccinated, it's time to focus on summer learning plans, he said.

The summer school legislation is similar to a proposal from Gov. Tim Walz. The first term Democratic governor has called on lawmakers to pass it by April 15 so districts can plan their summer programs. 

Republicans who voted against the bill said the funding will help some urban districts more than their suburban and outstate districts.

"This bill is only equitable if you represent the Minneapolis school district, probably," said House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "This bill is misguided."

Republicans who control the Senate also criticized the legislation that's headed their way, characterizing it as unnecessary because Minnesota school districts are already in line for $1.3 billion from this month's federal COVID relief law. 

"We can use federal funds to pay for summer school," said state Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, in an emailed statement.

Walz's broad powers

Under state law, Walz has broad powers to spend federal money even if lawmakers don't agree on a summer school plan.

Minnesota state government will get $2.7 billion from the federal COVID relief law, and the governor has control over it after the legislative session adjourns May 17 with only advisory input from the state's Legislative Advisory Commission.

Friday, Walz referred to that power in a letter to lawmakers, and his budget director repeated the point in a House Ways and Means committee meeting Monday.

Republicans who are powerless to stop the governor criticized the law.

"I’m just wondering if there’s any DFLers that have a problem with one dude deciding how to spend ($2.7 billion)?" said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. "Maybe it’s just a Republican thing."

State Rep. Rena Moran, the Ways and Means chairwoman, pointed to the governor's broad authority.

"At the end of session, the governor has power to disburse this money as he chooses," said Moran, DFL-St. Paul. "We don’t want that to happen. We want to be involved in this process."