There was no good reason for the Republican members of the Minnesota Senate to pack up and stop negotiating before the deadline to pass bills during the 2022 session of the Minnesota Legislature, but there was a bad one: Election-year politics.
Minnesota educators began the third week of May expecting the leaders of the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz to honor their commitments to each other and the people of Minnesota to finish their work on time and within an agreed-upon framework for spending a $9.25 billion surplus.
As of press time, it didn’t happen. Instead, the final two of weeks of the session became another set of lessons in why educators need to stay engaged in the political process if we ever want our schools to be fully funded.
A bipartisan deal announced May 16 would have spent $4 billion on tax cuts and $1 billion on education, in addition to other spending. It would have left $4 billion in reserve.
Dozens of educators visited the Capitol in the final week of the session. They talked about school buildings in need of repairs. They described working conditions that were burning out their colleagues. Most of all, they pleaded with representatives and senators to use the surplus to ease the mental health crisis among students and staff.
It wasn’t enough.
The political pressure to run out the clock was apparently too strong for the GOP senators to resist. The theory was that it was better to spend nothing now because if the party wins big in November it could control the House, Senate and governor’s office. Then it would be easy to spend the entire surplus on tax cuts, which inevitably favor the wealthiest households and corporations.
One of the final versions of the education bill would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pay down the special education cross-subsidy, which is the difference between the cost of providing special education services and the revenue to pay for those services. While not ideal, the plan would help nearly every district in the state.
But instead of hammering out the details with his colleagues in the House, the chair of the Senate education committee, Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, didn’t call his committee together to negotiate in the final 24 hours. Like ignoring the alarm of a smoke detector, I worry the delay for sending resources to our schools will turn the current state of emergency into a conflagration of crises this fall.
Lesson 1: There is no bipartisan consensus at the Capitol around supporting the needs of every student.
If there was a time when educators could depend on support from across the political divide, that time has passed. Get to know your candidates. Some will listen to a story about a suicidal child and the need for hiring more mental health professionals and look an educator straight in the eye and say, no, it’s not a budget year. It happened this year. Get informed. Vote your values.
Lesson 2: When the Legislature sends a blank check to your district, be ready to influence how it’s spent.
If the money for the cross-subsidy had passed, it would have freed up money for other things. Those other things could be mean bonuses for the top administrators or new office furniture, so stay organized and engaged with your school boards. The best people to decide how to allocate district resources are the people who know the students best.
We all wish this exhausting school year would have ended with better news from the Legislature, but it didn’t. Now it’s up to us to rest, recharge and resume our work toward fully funding our schools by electing leaders in November who value students and can deliver on their promises.