Kindergarten teacher Kenzie Schroeder's classroom was half full when Gov. Tim Walz stopped by Tuesday to read a book about the Arctic. COVID-related absences had forced yet another return to digital learning.
The Inver Grove Heights school the DFL governor visited was a microcosm of struggles playing out across Minnesota. Weary teachers continue to endure pandemic change-ups; parents are juggling work with caring for kids in quarantine; child care costs are high, and there are too few providers.
"The earlier we start supporting kids, the better chance they have for success," said Hilltop Elementary School Principal Dave Lostetter, who has a 2-week-old baby at home. His family had struggled to find child care and got the last opening at a center that he said was convenient but expensive.
Walz stood in front of a climbing wall in Hilltop's gymnasium as he presented his spending wish list to address those challenges Minnesota families are facing. The family and children-focused portion of his supplemental budget, which he has been rolling out piecemeal, would amount to $5.1 billion over three years, budget officials said. It includes a 2% increase in the state's general education funding formula, along with paid leave programs for workers.
"This is why I ran for governor. To be honest with you, I did not plan on being a public health expert," said Walz, a former high school teacher.
Minnesota's projected $7.7 billion budget surplus gives state leaders room for additional spending when lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for the next legislative session. But many elements of the governor's proposal face a difficult path in the divided Legislature.
Senate Republicans called Walz's proposal Tuesday a "spending spree."
"Last year, Senate Republicans passed record funding for schools — a 2.5% increase this year, a 2% increase next year — and Minnesota schools received $3 billion from Congress," Senate Education Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said in a statement. "Throwing more money into schools without addressing literacy and allowing kids and educators to catch up is the wrong direction."
Chamberlain has listed the expansion of a training program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which was not in Walz's plan, among his top session priorities. He also said he wants parents to be included in curriculum decisions and "have the freedom to choose the best school for their child."
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has said the amount of money the state is spending on students has not produced good results and his caucus wants to consider different approaches. He also said Senate Republicans want to get "back to the basics" in the classroom and focus on such areas as reading, math, science and American history.
House Democrats, meanwhile, said Tuesday that they have identified billions of dollars in educational needs, including more than $2 billion for early learning and wage increases for teachers. They said those needs also include $870 million to fully fund special education and English language learner programs, and $55 million to freeze tuition at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities this year.
They signaled support for Walz's education, paid leave and child care funding proposals, but DFL leaders said they will work through specific plans during the session. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said they proposed more funding for education in the past two state budgets but ultimately agreed on less spending in order to strike a deal with Senate Republicans.
"Our compromised budget came up short," she said. "Now we have an opportunity to go back to those areas and invest."
In past sessions, Senate Republicans and Democrats have clashed over whether to increase funding for public schools or spend money on vouchers for private institutions. House Education Finance Chair Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said voucher proposals "don't square with the state's needs or our moral obligation" to Minnesota schools.
House DFL members and Walz stressed that the state needs to make changes to address the high cost of child care. The governor proposed higher payment rates for providers, which he said would increase access to affordable care for 30,000 children.
Other aspects of the governor's proposal include expanding pre-kindergarten access to serve an additional 6,000 children and providing free school breakfasts and lunches. He also proposes spending $77 million over the next few years on student support personnel, including counselors and social workers.
In addition, Walz wants Minnesota to follow other states that have added paid family and medical leave requirements, which ensure workers can take time off when they have a serious health condition, must care for a sick family member are recovering after childbirth or face other such situations.
He also proposed a sick and safe leave plan, which would allow workers to accrue up to 48 hours a year for shorter-term needs, such as caring for a child during a school closure or going to a doctor's appointment.
People would pay in to cover the leave costs, similar to an insurance policy, Walz said. He contended the plan would benefit businesses in the long run by helping them retain employees.
"What that looks like, we are willing to work with the Legislature to figure it out," Walz said.
House Republicans decried the payroll tax increases that would accompany paid leave.
"With a $7.7 billion surplus, Minnesotans deserve permanent and meaningful tax relief," said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch. "Instead, Gov. Walz is pushing massive new government spending and billions in tax hikes on businesses and workers who are already struggling with inflation and soaring energy costs."
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.