Newport Elementary School fourth-graders held hands as they prepared for a school-board meeting in April 2022. The board planned to close Newport Elementary as part of a property tax referendum to upgrade facilities and alleviate overcrowding in other district schools. Voters later rejected that plan, leaving Newport Elementary open and the district in need of a new funding plan. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Education will be a top priority when Minnesota Democrats take control of both legislative chambers in January, party leaders tell Sahan Journal.

“It’s number one,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL–Brooklyn Park), a week after her party’s Election Day win. “We support a substantial increase in funding for E-12 schools.” (That is, early childhood education through 12th grade.)

Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat and former teacher, is heading into his second term after winning reelection last week. But next session, for the first time since he became governor, Democrats will have a trifecta: unified control of state government, with majorities in the House and Senate as well as control of the governor’s office. In his second term, he said, education will continue to be a “top priority.”

“We have a historic opportunity to fully fund education and make sure that every student, in every neighborhood, gets an education that allows them to thrive,” Walz said in a statement to Sahan Journal.

Kari Dziedzic (DFL–Minneapolis), the incoming Senate Majority Leader, said that while the Senate DFL has not yet set its agenda, education will be a priority.

“We believe in public education, we believe in having strong education opportunities for all kids,” Dziedzic said. “That’ll be part of our focus.”

The party’s trifecta comes at a time when school districts across the state have been strained by declining enrollment, rising student mental health needs, staffing shortages, widening academic disparities, and inflation. In March, Minneapolis educators staged a three-week strike, demanding increased school funding to help with higher pay, student mental health, and increased staffing.

The trifecta also comes as school districts brace for the end of federal COVID relief money. While COVID rescue packages provided an influx of $2.7 billion to Minnesota schools, the one-time nature of those funds made it difficult for school districts to make ongoing financial commitments like hiring more staff. And districts must allocate the money by September 2024.

Hortman says it was “painful” to watch the Minneapolis strike without being able to provide resources. “They were on strike for the same reasons we have been running for office and fighting for increased education funding over the years,” she said.

As Minneapolis educators neared a strike over inadequate resources, the state’s budget surplus ballooned to a record $9.25 billion. But the divided legislature could not agree on how to spend it.  Two months after the strike, Governor Tim Walz, Hortman, and Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller (R–Winona) agreed to a supplemental budget framework that included $1 billion for education. House Democrats had already passed a bill that would have provided expanded funding for special education and English language services, mental health support, and programs to train school staff to become teachers. 

But Senate Republicans, who had initially proposed a much smaller dollar amount—$30 million, focused solely on literacy programs—did not agree to it. The conference committee did not reach a compromise, and ultimately no education spending bill passed last year. Instead, the legislature left most of the state’s $9.25 billion surplus unspent. 

Now, Democrats will have the opportunity to spend it.

“That compromise that we always had to make with Republicans is not a stumbling block anymore,” Hortman said.

For Senator Mary Kunesh (DFL–New Brighton), an Assistant Majority Leader and retired school librarian who serves on the Senate Education Committee, unified Democratic control means a chance to make serious investments in schools.

“We have such a valuable opportunity to rebuild or reimagine how we’re funding education and what we want our schools to look like in the future,” Kunesh said. “I think it will be really important to take this time to listen to our school districts, our communities, and build the kind of system that is going to work for everyone.”

What could education funding look like next year?

Democrats have yet to outline an education budget. They don’t even know yet how much money they’ll have to work with. That dollar amount will be determined by the budget forecast for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, which the Minnesota Management and Budget office will release later this year. 

Still, in conversations with Sahan Journal, legislative leaders named some clear priorities for education. Dziedzic, Hortman, and Kunesh all identified student mental health as a priority. Dziedzic noted that Minnesota students have fewer school counselors per capita than students in almost any other state.

Another common concern: school funding. 

State and federal policies set requirements for special education and English language instruction, but do not fully fund either set of programs. School districts pay those costs out of their general funds, which means they have less money to spend on other expenses. 

These deficits are known as “cross-subsidies.” In fiscal year 2020, those statewide deficits totaled $735 million for special education and $117 million for English learners.

“I think we will be looking at how to address the cross-subsidy deficits that school districts are bearing,” Kunesh said. “I don’t know what the dollar amount would be. It’s got to be huge, because it’s just the anchor that’s dragging school districts down.”

On November 9, the day that Democrats clinched the trifecta, some House Democrats announced on Twitter they intended to fully fund the special education cross-subsidy.

Hortman said her caucus supports a “substantial increase” in education funding. But she said she did not yet know whether the caucus would focus those funds on cross-subsidies or on an increase to the funding formula, which determines the amount of funding each school gets per pupil. Democrats would likely increase funds for both, she said.

Walz pointed to the Due North education plan he released last year, which would reform school financing, invest in early childhood education, expand rigorous coursework in greater Minnesota, and train a diverse teaching workforce. “Now we can build on that plan,” he said.

Kunesh said she would like to revisit the funding formula altogether to make it more equitable. That could mean support for districts that may not be able to raise property taxes to fund schools or those that need access to broadband. And she hopes that education funding does not have to wait until the end of the session. She’d like to see the legislature pass a supplemental budget in January to address urgent education needs, including cross-subsidies, transportation costs, free school meals, and mental health.

“If you look at the House’s education bill,”—that is, the plan the House passed last spring that the Senate did not agree to—“we could just take that and pass it in January and then move on to the next one,” she said. “I think there would be a strong interest in doing something like that.”

Dziedzic, the incoming Senate Majority Leader, said the caucus had not yet discussed the possibility of supplemental budget proposals.

Another top agenda item, Kunesh said: academic support.

“Our tests in math and reading have really plummeted since COVID, so how are we going to put extra supports into the schools that are going to help get kids back on track?” she asked.

Bridging the gap

On March 6, 2020, Hortman and other DFL leaders gathered at the Capitol for a daylong symposium called “Bridging the Gap.” Speakers discussed research and possible solutions to close Minnesota schools’ racial disparities in academic achievement, early childhood opportunities, and punitive discipline. Students testified about the importance of teachers of color. Parents shared perspectives on barriers to success. Legislators left inspired and ready to focus on closing educational gaps.

But elsewhere in Ramsey County that day, a different event captured the headlines. The Minnesota Department of Health had detected the state’s first diagnosed case of COVID-19.

“Right before COVID struck, the Majority Leader, Ryan Winkler, and I were really intent on using the 2020 session to get at the opportunity gap,” Hortman recalled. “But then of course, it was all COVID all the time.”

Now, with Democrats in the majority and COVID presenting a less urgent threat, Hortman hopes to resume that work to address racial disparities in Minnesota’s schools.

“We were really ready to dive in,” she said. “I kind of want to pick up right where we left off.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...