Jump on the Omni-bus! It took awhile on both the House and Senate floors, but all of the omnibus education funding and policy bills passed their respective floors and the conference committee (or perhaps committees) will be formed soon to resolve the differences that exist between the House and Senate bills. In somewhat of a departure from previous history, it was the Senate where the more spirited–and longer–debate took place.
A couple of smaller amendments were attached to the House bill on the floor late last week, but the major amendments offered by the Republicans were defeated. They offered their version of the omnibus bill that proposed to increase the basic formula by 5% in each of the next two years (future increases not tied to inflation), an on-going reduction in the special education cross-subsidy, and $250 million to help districts implement reading curricula based on the science of reading. That was defeated on an expected party-line vote. Other amendments dealing with eliminating the requirement that prospective PSEO students sign a “faith statement” to enroll in certain religious post-secondary institutions was defeated. Another major amendment that was defeated would have dropped the requirement in the bill that prospective PSEO students sign a “faith statement” to enroll at a post-secondary institution that participates in the PSEO program. There was also considerable debate about the ethnic studies standards proposed in the bill and amendment to strike that section from the bill, but it was also defeated. The bill passed on a party-line vote of 70-60. Usually a member has to vote for the bill to be a member of the conference committee, but exceptions have been made in the past to make sure the minority caucus is represented in the discussions to formulate the final version of the omnibus education funding and policy bill and if that tradition holds true, I would expect that either the Republican Finance lead (Representative Ron Kresha) or the Republican Policy lead (Representative Peggy Bennett) will assume that role on the conference committee. We know that House Education Finance Chair Representative Cheryl Youakim and House Education Policy Chair Laurie Pryor will be two of the majority party conferees and it will be interesting to see whoever takes the other two slots.
The Senate has not combined their bills at this point and Monday afternoon and evening were dedicated first to debating and passing the Senate Education Policy bill followed by discussion and passage of the Senate Education Finance bill. Senator Steve Cwodzinski pre-emptively made some changes to the language in the proposed ethnic studies requirement to defuse opposition to what some opponents to the proposal have labeled as divisive, but there was still an amendment offered later to remove the section entirely. That amendment was withdrawn after considerable discussion. There was an amendment adopted on a bipartisan basis that preserved the current Tier-3 licensure status instead of changing it to the detriement of school districts and many prospective teaching candidates. There was an identical amendment as the one offered in the House relating to prohibiting post-secondary institutions that participate in the PSEO program from requiring prospective students from having to sign a “faith statement” that was defeated, but a later amendment did soften the prohibition by tying state policy to recent judicial decisions relating to the separation of church and state that have somewhat blurred that line. I can only surmise that this issue will end up in court at some point. The bill passed on a 36-31 vote with two Republicans joining the DFL majority in supporting the bill.
The discussion on the education was also protracted and an amendment offered by Senator Lucero that created a disparity aid formula to be included as part of the general education formula passed with three DFLers voting for the amendment. Revenue to cover the cost of the provision was balanced internally by moving money from the proposed increase in the EL formula. The Senate Republicans also offered an amendment similar to that proposed by the House Republicans that allocated the $2.2 billion target differently. Once nuance added to this amendment was the inclusion of a big boost to operating referendum equalization. The amendment failed on a party-line vote. The final vote on the bill was 35-32, with Senator Abeler voting in favor of the bill.
Things might get a little complicated from here. The Senate has continued its two-bill approach while the House incorporated both the finance and policy provisions into one bill. It has been almost two decades since there were separate conference committees on finance and policy and I think at some juncture, the Senate will combine its bills and a single conference committee will be convened. Getting there will require floor action that could delay things a day or two, but I fully expect the conference committee–or committees–to begin their work by early next week. The Legislature must adjourn at midnight on Monday, May 22, and even with a bit of a delay gertting underway, I don’t foresee a problem getting the bill wrapped up. There are differences in the bill in terms of the amount allocated to different funding streams, but there is not much difference in the scope of the bills. Each bill has a funding stream or two not contained in the other bill, but there are not major differences that cannot be bridged.
Unemployment Insurance Issue Update. One issue is both bills that continues to be problematic is the expansion of unemployment insurance benefits to “between-term” employees like bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and food service staff that often only work during the nine-month school year. That provision was included in the original Governor’s budget recommendations and was scheduled to take effect at the end of the 2023-24 school year. The Governor’s supplemental budget moved that up by a year to take effect after the current school year. The Governor’s recommendations covered the cost of the program with a line-item appropriation, but the House and Senate have foregone that approach and have instead incorporated the revenue from the Governor’s recommendations into the basic formula and other revenue streams. The argument is that districts will pay for the program through the revenue increase found in other parts of the final agreement. Both bills prohibit districts from using the employment levy to pay for costs incurred due to the change.
Even if funding were provided, the decision to move the enactment up a year could cause a lot of disruption as school districts try to prepare their summer school programs and make sure that the requirements prescribed under eligible students’ IEP are seamlessly met. While moving the effective date out a year wouldn’t remove all concerns or eliminate the financial burden that school districts would face, a one-year delay would provide districts with the opportunity to adjust their operations and offerings for the summer following the 2024-25 school year and work with parents, especially the parents of special education students, to make certain the change, if enacted, works to everyone’s benefit. Further, an additional year would allow the 2024 Legislature a better opportunity to fund the program by creating a state aid stream as outlined in the Governor’s original budget recommendations or equalizing the lease levy (and enhancing other equalization programs to keep the effort levy-neutral) to cover the costs. It will be important for school districts to weigh in on this issue as events move forward.