Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota lawmakers made good on a promise by Gov. Tim Walz and approved a historic budget for K-12 education — $2.2 billion in new funding will go to schools and young learners. The total amount spent on educating kids will be about $23.2 billion in the next two years.
But what will Minnesota students and their families get for that hefty price tag, which represents about a third of the total state budget?
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board previously noted, the largest chunk of the new spending rightly boosts the general education per-pupil amount by 4% in the first year and 2% in year two. And the increase will wisely raise funding to support special education and English-language learning.
Some of the new dollars will be used to make much-needed improvements in student reading. Test scores show that nearly half of Minnesota public school students can't read at the appropriate grade level — dismal results reflected in test scores for students across the country.
Minnesota's Read Act, which is included in the broader education bill, requires districts to select from three state-approved literacy plans that emphasize phonics, vocabulary and phonemic awareness. Until now, districts could choose their approach to reading. Some selected what's known as the "whole language" strategy, which did not work well for some students. The bill provides $35 million for districts to train teachers in the approved programs.
It's been a long time coming, but lawmakers also finally approved requiring civics, government and personal finance classes for graduation.
National data and anecdotal accounts locally indicate that civics education declined since the early 2000s, indicating the need for improvement. A 2016 national study found that only a quarter of Americans (students and adults) can name all three branches of government. And recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported poor results for civics and government knowledge among eighth-graders.
In another positive move for districts, school boards will be allowed to renew their existing operating referendums one time without going to voters for approval. That provision will bring more stability to school budgets and eliminate the need to wage renewal campaigns quite so often.
Promisingly, some areas of the spending package had bipartisan support. The two parties agreed that more funding should go to the general per-pupil student formula (though they differed on the amount), that reading instruction should be revamped and that civics education is important. Still, the measure passed mostly along party lines.
Republican critics of the new spending package said that it included too many unfunded requirements for districts. Some also argued that the bill fails to place enough emphasis on academic achievement. Those criticisms should be considered as the changes are evaluated over time.
"This bill puts mandates over money. It puts mandates over students, and it takes away local control," Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said during the House debate. But most DFLers believe this bill is "transformational."
"The work we've done over the last five months will make a generational impact on our state — it will lower costs, improve lives, and cut child poverty," Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. "In January I outlined a vision to make Minnesota the best state in the nation for kids to grow up in. The DFL-led Legislature delivered on that promise."
The investment is welcome and, if effectively used, will pay dividends for decades to come.