After a tense standoff over tax breaks for private school tuition, Minnesota Gov. Arne H. Carlson and state lawmakers reached agreement late last month on an education bill that makes far-reaching changes in the public school system.
The plan represents a shift away from the state’s traditional emphasis on funding school district to a focus on giving student and their families money to use as they wish, supporters say.
Mr. Carlson vetoed the 6.7 billion, two-year education finance bill this spring, digging in his heels to try to gain tax credits that families with modest incomes could use to help pay for private schooling. (See Education Week, June 18, 1997.)
The compromise bill approved June 26 in a special legislative e ion fell short of that goal, but it does include new tax credits for families earning $33,500 and below that can be used to purchase a wide range of education-related services.
The “Students First” plan also lifts the current 40-school cap on the number of charter schools in the state and mandates that the $350 million in compensatory aid contained in the bill follow students to schools, rather than be spent at the district level.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the schools serve large numbers of low-income children, some sites could receive as much as $1 million to spend as they see fit to improve educational outcomes for poorly performing students.
The focus on boosting achievement meshes well with legislation passed earlier this spring establishing the first statewide testing program in Minnesota history, said Robert J. Wedl, the state education commissioner.
“This is the most significant reform in our history,” he said of the bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 50-9 and the House by 108-21. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.
Education groups pulled out all the stops to try to defeat the measure, busing teachers to the state Capitol to lobby against it.
“‘We all said no bill was better than a bad bill,” said Diane O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Federation of Teachers.
Ms. O’Brien said the teachers’ union viewed the tax breaks as “the gateway to privatization activities” and a diversion of public money without accountability.
But Tim Sullivan, the governor’s education adviser, noted that the bill calls for record spending on public education.
In remarks after the bill’s passage, Mr. Carlson called the moment “a devastating defeat” for the unions. “A governor took them head on and went toe to toe, and choice prevailed,” he said.
Parents, Charters Aided
The new state income-tax credits, of $1,000 per child and up to $2,000 per family, can be used to help buy computer software and hardware, tutoring services, textbooks, equipment, and instructional materials. The credits also can be used to help offset transportation expenses and pay for summer school and camps. Families that don’t earn enough to owe taxes will get checks for the amount of credits they qualify for.
Lawmakers also agreed to expand the state’s existing tax deduction for education, which stood at $1,000 per child, to $1,625 per student in grades K-6 and $2,500 for students in grades 7-12. The deduction can be used help offset the cost of private school tuition, in addition to the kinds of services covered under the new tax credit. Finally, the bill expands the state’s working-family tax credit to provide households that have children and earn $29,000 a year or less with an additional $200 to $350 credit, which can be used for any purpose, including private school tuition.
The changes will take effect for the 1998 tax year.
On the issue of charter schools, lawmakers lifted the cap on the number that can be started, designated $50,000 grants to help with start-up cost, created grants for building repairs, and allowed higher education institutions to sponsor charter schools.
Mr. Wedl predicted that many more charter schools will open as a result of the changes and that families will create a market for summer school and other services with their tax-credit dollars. These could be provided on a tuition basis by public school or by groups of public school teachers, he said.
“It’s no longer what the system can provide,” he ·aid. “Now parents have some resources to purchase” education services.
A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week