MARSHALL - Education in Minnesota continued to be a high priority for the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton during the 2014 legislative session, benefiting all 337 school districts and the more than 2,000 schools in the state.
The Legislature enacted $54 million in new education funding for its more than 840,000 students across Minnesota, including $82,724 in new funding for the Marshall School District. The investment is for increased student aid, early learning programs, nutritious breakfast and lunches and other important measures and is in addition to the substantial education funding allotted in 2013.
"Over the last two years, we have paid back all the $2.8 billion previously borrowed from our schools, funded 9,000 early learning scholarships, provided access to free full-day kindergarten for every student and significantly increased funding for every school district in Minnesota," Dayton said in a news release. "These investments will greatly improve our nation-leading education system and help provide our students the advantages and opportunities they need to succeed in school, life and the jobs of tomorrow."
Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius also noted that the new investments were critical for students to be successful.
With the smart investments in the things that matter, educators will be able to tackle the achievement gaps more effectively, assist more children in getting a jump-start in their academic career and better support every student on the path to high school graduation and beyond, she said.
"I think about it every night when I go to sleep and every morning when I wake up, that we have an enormous responsibility to educate our children," Cassellius said. "There's still much more to do, but boy, what a great start we have. It is pretty amazing."
Statewide, $660 million was invested in education from early learning to 12th grade during the last two years, of which Marshall will receive $1,444,707, as a result of the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions. The investment is in addition to the $2.8 billion previously borrowed from schools, also known as the school shift.
"We've had to make up for a decade of cuts and a bad economy," Cassellius said. "We were borrowing, but now we've paid the schools back so they can now meet the expectations in the state. There is still a long way to go and more progress to make, but on all accounts, we're heading in the right direction."
The breakdown for investments in 2014 includes $23.4 million, which was added to the education funding formula for every school district. The new resources are expected to help pay for teachers, facility improvements, equipment and technology to ensure that all Minnesota students have access to a world-class education.
"We gave the school districts back the money we borrowed so they can turn the lights on," Cassellius said. "We also gave them additional per pupil funding, an increase of 1.5 percent per pupil, to run their school district. This gives them the opportunity to look at their class sizes or maybe return to something they had previously done. All those things are going to raise achievement, so we're not throwing money away but making smart investments."
Research shows that early learning programs provide a significant return on investments. A $12 million investment in early learning initiatives is expected to help ensure a solid foundation for young students. Included in the funding is $4.6 million geared for early learning scholarships. The funds, along with the $42 million investment from 2013, will provide an additional 850 Minnesota children with scholarships to attend high-quality pre-K programs. Over the biennium, this equates to nearly 9,000 children who will benefit from the program.
Another $4.6 million was invested in Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), which assists families with children between birth and kindergarten, along with $1.8 million spearheaded for the School Readiness Initiative to help prepare more young Minnesotans for school.
In regards to closing the achievement gap, $4.9 million is being allotted to help improve the academic success and language skills of the state's English Learners.
In response to a Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid report released in January, the Legislature budgeted $3.5 million for the school lunch program and $569,000 to provide breakfast to all 64,000 Minnesota kindergarten students. The report found that 46 Minnesota school districts had policies that denied students access to a nutritious lunch if they did not have sufficient funds to pay for their meal. The 2014 investment will ensure that no student is denied access to a hot meal at lunchtime. An additional $1 million was invested in Minnesota Reading Corps, an initiative that has proven to increase reading ability and comprehension.
Cassellius has been impressed with the improvement in a number of educational areas, including the fourth-grade reading and math levels.
"Minnesota has moved from the 22nd to the 10th in the nation in fourth-grade reading level," she said. "That's because of our effort to make sure our students are reading at grade level by third grade. And our fourth-graders are now Number 1 in the nation in math."
Cassellius also pointed out that Minnesota was one of 15 states to meet the benchmarks of a results-based testing, which the state has moved to recently.
The 2014 investments didn't just include funding for students but also allotted funding for teachers, specifically teacher evaluation. While 50 percent of Minnesota teachers receive compensation through Qcomp, the other half do not. Those unfunded teachers will now benefit from a $9 million investment this year.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, a union of 70,000 educators in the state, is also optimistic about where the state is headed in education. Having gotten a good deal of positive feedback about the recent investments from union members, Specht believes Minnesota is now heading in the right direction.
"Educators want to prepare children for successful lives, but that can be hard to do without adequate resources," Specht said. "Those shortages were an epidemic in schools for the 10 years before Mark Dayton was elected governor. Since then, state support has increased and educators are getting more tools for helping their students. I think every teacher recognizes and appreciates the new investment."
Specht anticipates each school district will utilize the new money in a variety of ways to meet unique local needs.
"It's hard to generalize, but I expect we'll see smaller class sizes in some districts, new technology, updated textbooks and, hopefully, some increases in wages and benefits so districts can attract and retain good teachers."
Specht noted appreciation for new investments in special education, early childhood and family education and the overall per-pupil formula but acknowledged that the all-day, everyday kindergarten funding ranked near the top according to union teachers.
"I can't remember a program that was better received among teachers than offering free, all-day, every-day kindergarten to every Minnesota family," Specht said. "This will create a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning. It's literally going to raise academic achievement for a generation of Minnesotans. It's very, very exciting."