ST. PAUL -- Public schools scored big during Gov. Jesse Ventura's first two years in office, enjoying more than $1 billion in new money that was a sharp contrast to the tiny increases they saw through much of the 1990s.
As Ventura prepares to present his next budget to the Legislature, his message to school officials is clear: Another bonanza is a long shot.
"They should have lower expectations for the amount of money," said Christine Jax, his education commissioner. Ventura "put a lot of money out there last time trying to fix some of the problems he saw, and now he wants to get back to his roots ... and that is holding the line on spending."
Nonetheless, education will get ample attention in 2001, as befits a budget item that accounts for more than one-third of the state's $23 billion in spending over two years.
Lawmakers are likely to debate teacher pay, student testing and Ventura's proposal for the state to pay all basic K-12 costs by removing those costs from property tax bills.
The property tax plan is the centerpiece of Ventura's legislative agenda. He insists that the state would have no more power over school decisions than it does now.
"This isn't about greater control of the schools," he said recently. "This is ending the shell game."
Ventura says his plan would make property taxes more understandable and government more accountable. Now, it's difficult to tell how much property owners are paying to satisfy state requirements and how much is the result of excess levies by districts that want to go beyond the basic state allotment.
The shift would require the state to cover 100 percent of the basic formula that dictates how much districts pay -- $3,964 per student this year -- for teacher salaries, textbooks, heating bills and other routine expenses. Currently, the state's share is roughly 70 percent and the rest falls to property taxes.
To pull it off, Ventura would need to find $880 million to make up for the loss of property tax revenue. He is considering broadening the sales tax to more services, imposing fees in other areas or revamping county and city aid programs.
On the surface, the plan seems to dig deeper into the public's right pocket and less into its left, leaving schools' bottom line unchanged. A handful of school officials contacted about Ventura's proposal were unwilling to take a position until complete details are released, but they grumbled privately that it won't fix an education funding system that they say is unfair and inadequate.
Bob Meeks, a lobbyist for the Minnesota School Boards Association, worried that Ventura's proposal would threaten a reliable school funding stream that can adapt to economic troubles.
"Back in the '80s, if we would not have had the property tax, the public schools in this state would have closed down," Meeks said. "You cannot raise income tax rates or sales tax rates quick enough in times of economic disaster to keep everything operating."
Ventura's theme of accountability will be a thread in the education budget, Jax said. For instance, she said Ventura wants proof that class-size reduction money is used for that purpose instead of other programs.
The administration also has floated a proposal to give an extra $150 per student to districts that come up with ways to tie teacher pay more closely to performance.
The accompanying message to school districts, Jax said, is "come up with something that rewards people for more than just being there another year."
The Mabel-Canton School District, in the state's far southeast corner, moved in that direction as part of its most recent contract. The board dangled bonuses in front of teachers who set and meet performance goals.
In 1999-2000, any teacher who drew up a list of classroom objectives and benchmarks got an extra $400. This school year, $418 awaits the district's teachers if students do well on standardized tests and the Profile of Learning. The Profile of Learning calls on students to prove their knowledge in a variety of subjects through projects or performances.
Regardless of whether teachers achieve the goals, the money gets to them in some way, Superintendent Richard Nance said.
"If you know what you're doing, show us and the money's yours," Nance explained. "If you don't know what you're doing, let's use it to buy the training so you do know what you're doing."
Students' own performance will be another point of discussion next year. There may be a push to increase the number of tests they take. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which measure skills picked up through the Profile of Learning, now are given in only third and fifth grade.
"We need a couple more tests so we have some benchmarks along the way to make sure the system is working and the schools are working," Jax said.
Testing will be a flashpoint for other reasons, too. After a well-publicized grading error in which thousands of students incorrectly received failing scores on required exams, some lawmakers want to give parents, teachers and students more access to the tests after they take them.
Education officials warn that returning tests or answer sheets could be expensive because they must develop new exams once existing ones are made public. Each test costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to draw up and each question must go through a rigorous analysis before students see it.
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