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'New Minnesota Miracle' school bill lacks funding source, critics contend

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By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Democratic lawmakers want to boost state funding to public schools $1.7 billion annually, but critics call the plan an election-year ploy without a way to pay for it.

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The plan introduced Monday by a group of mostly Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers bumps up state aid to classrooms beginning next year, makes changes to additional aid payments schools receive and simplifies some formulas used to determine funding.

Supporters call it the "New Minnesota Miracle" -- a revision of the landmark 1970s policy that changed how schools were funded.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and others said it would provide schools enough money to meet state and federal mandates and prepare students to compete in a 21st century global economy.

"When you've been driving the car around for 20 years here, you sometimes need a new transmission," Kelliher said of the school funding system.

Kelliher and others said the plan could be phased in over a number of years, but they did not say how it would be funded. They said there is time before the next budget-crafting legislative session in 2009 to identify funding sources, but skeptics nearly dismissed it outright because a funding source was not identified.

"The miracle is they don't have any money to pay for it," Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.

Because supporters did not come up with funding sources, Pawlenty added, the plan "lacks credibility." He said the plan tweaks, but does not reform, school aid.

"It does very little for actual reform of education," he said.

Public schools receive nearly 40 percent of the state's two-year, $34.7 billion budget. State tax dollars comprised 92 percent of schools' funding seven years ago, lawmakers said, but the state share now is 78 percent.

The proposed funding changes would bring that back up to 85 percent by increasing state aid and cutting the amount of property tax revenue directed to schools, said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, a key legislator behind the plan.

"That's still 15 percent we have to get from someplace," Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said of the need for property tax revenue.

Heidgerken, who sat in on task force meetings, said the proposal does make improvements, including some benefiting rural districts, but said it should do more to help schools with veteran teaching staff and declining enrollment.

"That's still 15 percent we have to get from someplace," Heidgerken said of non-state school revenue.

Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, served on the task force that developed the funding recommendation. Skogen said the plan provides more stability to school districts by reducing the amount of classroom funds that come from local property taxes.

"If we took it all and funded it, it would be the new Minnesota Miracle," he said.

The school funding system is broken, Rep. Pat Garofalo said, but tweaking the way schools receive state aid and increasing that amount will not solve the problem, Garofalo said.

"This is all dessert and no vegetables," said Garofalo, R-Farmington. "It's all the goodies and no way to pay for it."

If the Legislature wants to create a 21st century school funding system, Garofalo said, it should consider how technology could be better used in classrooms.

Garofalo said lawmakers introduced the proposal in advance of the Minnesota House elections this fall.

The proposal, the result of a legislative task force and school groups' recommendations, gets its first committee airing Thursday. Supporters plan to flaunt it around the state, hoping to gain support prior to the 2009 legislative session.

State Capitol reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

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