By Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Democratic education leaders want to bump up education spending by raiding money meant for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's cornerstone education reform program.
Democrats who control the House and Senate propose putting more dollars into the classroom instead of allowing the Republican governor's Q-Comp alternative teacher compensation program to expand - an approach that angers Pawlenty.
"That will be the discussion point," Senate education finance Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said of the Q-Comp conflict.
The Legislature and Pawlenty passed a two-year state budget last year, which increased school spending by $800 million. Now, in light of a projected $935 million state budget shortfall, they are tweaking budget plans, including for education.
The Senate plan also makes changes related to often-overlooked payments schools receive from interest generated by a trust fund on state land, mostly in northern Minnesota. Each school district receives a per-student payment from that interest, but until now saw the subtraction of an equal amount of basic state aid paid to schools.
The Senate plan would allow districts to continue to collect those trust fund dollars, but also receive the general state aid. Senators looked to the Q-Comp program to fund that change. They predict those trust fund payments will increase in future years as further mining and forestry opportunities are explored.
"It's enormous," Stumpf said of the potential for increased school revenue from the trust fund.
The House proposal doesn't make as many changes to the trust fund dollars, but does attempt to direct interest increases to schools in future years.
Pawlenty and legislative leaders say they will spare school classrooms from budget cuts. The governor's budget-balancing plan does not change state aid to schools, and he proposed creating a handful of new education programs. One would provide summer training for teachers in math and science - two areas Pawlenty has focused his reform efforts.
Senators unveiled their plan Thursday, offering only a portion of the funds Pawlenty wants for those new programs while giving schools $28.9 million more, mostly by halting expansion of the Q-Comp program. It translates into a $36-per-student boost to schools in 2008-09.
Stumpf said the Legislature only can provide limited funding increases to districts in a deficit year.
"I think we can do some good," he said.
Stumpf's House counterpart, DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville, offered a similar assessment of her proposal to give schools a one-time funding boost of about $44 million, $51 per student, next school year. She said it allows districts to stay afloat until 2009, when the Legislature will look at overhauling the state education payment system.
Like the Senate, the House uses Q-Comp money to pay for the classroom funding increases, but also taps reserve funds. The House would allow districts to shift some of their local funds to free up more dollars for the classroom.
The Legislature's approach isn't sitting well with Pawlenty.
The governor said he cannot support lawmakers' plans to kill Q-Comp.
"That won't end in a successful conclusion for them," Pawlenty said, hinting the education funding proposals are among several he could veto.
"It's not a statement against Q-Comp, it's just how do we use our resources as wisely across the state," Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said.
If the state economy improves, programs such as Q-Comp could be expanded in future years, she said.
Department of Education officials warned lawmakers that their funding proposals would hurt districts preparing Q-Comp applications and others that have expressed interest in joining the program.
"We are very concerned that the money is being used in this way," Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said.
More than two-dozen districts are lining up to take part in Q-Comp, Seagren said, and stripping unspent funds from the program sends a confusing message to districts.
Education Department officials told senators their plan, which includes roughly $6 million in agency cuts, would cut assessment programs, test information sent to parents and their visits to schools to help with testing.
There are other differences between the House and Senate packages. In their bill, representatives propose that Minnesota back out of the federal No Child Left Behind law. That would lift testing and other academic mandates.
"It sends a very strong message," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.
Garofalo said Minnesota schools spend more to meet the mandates then they receive in federal dollars.
Senate Democrats will not go along with the plan to scrap No Child Left Behind in Minnesota, Stumpf said.
Both the House and Senate permit state education officials to enter into tuition reciprocity agreements with bordering states, creating a payment system for when Minnesota students attend class in a school in an adjoining state. It expands legislation that previously outlined such an agreement with South Dakota.
"That's a very important reform for small districts along the border," lobbyist Sam Walseth of the Minnesota Rural Education Association told senators.
Walseth also said rural school districts would benefit from a Pawlenty proposal to create math and science teacher training courses. He said those districts in greater Minnesota struggle to attract skilled teachers for high-level courses.
State Capitol Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.