Tuesday, January 27, 2015

First Day of the Regular Season!  The release of the Governor's budget is kind of like the opening day of the baseball season.  Up to this point, the Governor and legislators have been honing their game; sending up trial balloons and seeing what might stick this session.  The Governor's budget is like the first pitch and from now on we'll be playing ball.

It's always important to treat the initial budget proposal as a first step; a very rudimentary first step.  The Governor outlines his priorities in rough terms and puts his money behind those priorities.  Governor Dayton's top priority this year is very straightforward.  In a speech last Friday, the Governor dropped some less than subtle hints about what direction his budget would head.  He stated in that speech that he was planning on devoting approximately half of the projected $1 billion forecast surplus toward programs for children and families.  Good to his word, the Governor proposed a significant increase in the child care tax credit (over $100 million) and has recommended an increase in the E-12 budget of $371 million over base.  The base is scheduled to rise by $219 million without legislative action, making the total increase contained in the budget $590 million.

It appears that the Governor isn't going to inundate the Legislature with a lot of policy changes.  There are only 14 change items--Governor's recommendations that go above the base--in  the budget. The largest single change item is the proposed 1% increase in the general education basic amount in each year of the biennium.  This accounts for $173 million of the $371 million (46%) of the Governor's proposed increase.  The next largest change item will likely be the most interesting (and perhaps most hotly debated) is the expanded early childhood education program that will provide 4-year-olds throughout the state with access to all-day preschool programs.  That program takes effect in the second year of the biennium and costs approximately $103 million.

Other change items are as follows (biennial costs):

Elimination of Current Head Start Wait List  --  $19.4 million
Increase for Minnesota Reading Corps  --  $10.0 million
Implementation of Help Me Grow  --  $2.0 million
Increase of Regional Centers of Excellence  --  $6.0 million
Increase in School Breakfast Program  --  $27.0 million
Extension of Eligibility for English Language Programs (6 to 7 years)  --  $7.9 million
Expanded Support for Success for the Future Program  --  $4.5 million
Additional Funding for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS)  --  $4.6 million
Additional Funding for Minnesota Department of Education  --  $818,000
Increased Support for Norhside Achievement Zone and Promise Neighborhood --  $4.0 million
Increase for State Board of Teaching  --  $200,000
Increase for Board of School Administrators  --  $9,000

There are obviously a number of details forthcoming, especially as to how the new early childhood program will mesh with existing programs, particularly the early childhood scholarship program.

As is the case every time a Governor's budget is released, there are a few disappointments that accompany the event.  Probably the two biggest (at least they are to me) are the exclusion of any part of the recommendations of the School Facilities Finance Working Group and the Teacher Development and Evaluation-Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System Alignment Work Group.  These two groups convened by the Minnesota Department of Education addressed two of the major inequities that exist between groups of school districts.  In the case of facilities, 25 districts in the state have access to the alternative facilities program which provides them with expanded ability to address deferred maintenance needs, while the remaining 300+ districts are limited to the deferred maintenance program and several other smaller facility-related programs.  Further, the debt service equalization program that provides taxpayers in low property wealth districts considerable tax equity when undertaking construction programs has not been updated markedly in over 20 years.

On the teacher development and evaluation/alternative compensation issue, approximately half the teachers in the state work in districts/cooperatives that do not have on-going revenue for the recently-implemented teacher development and evaluation program, which puts them at a clear disadvantage when compared to districts that are participating in the alternative compensation program.

I guess the bottom line for me in terms of my disappointment is that MDE has convened a number of very impressive task forces and working groups over the past few years, only to not see the recommendations appreciably embraced as they've moved up the line to the funding discussion.  We've seen it with the comprehensive funding working group that was convened in 2011 and now with these two working groups.

It's still early.  I always have to remember that.  Like I said in the opening paragraph, today was the first pitch.  The Legislature will now be taking its swings.  I'm sure there will be some swings-and-misses and some solid connections over the next three-plus months as the budget for the 2016-2017 biennium is constructed.  It's up to all of us who see gaps in the Governor's budget to make our case as to why those gaps should be closed.  It will likely take more in terms of resources and we simply don't know what the February budget forecast will yield in that respect.  The next few weeks leading up to that forecast will certainly be interesting and it will be a good time to make the case to legislators that more revenue is needed and that revenue needs to address some of the inequities that do exist in our E-12 funding system.

Here is the link to the education budget document (all 286 pages of it):  http://www.mn.gov/mmb-stat/documents/budget/2015-gov-rec/e37.pdf

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