Eagan-Burnsville legislative candidates debate education funding, programs

Rep. Doug Wardlow, R-Eagan (left), Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan, and Jim Carlson, DFL candidate for District 51, debated education funding, all-day kindergarten and special education during a forum on Oct. 9 at Black Hawk Middle School in Eagan. Rep. Diane Anderson, R-Eagan, Sandra Masin, DFL candidate for District 51A, and Laurie Halverson, DFL candidate for District 51B, also participated in the event. – Photo by Jessica Harper

Education funding, all-day kindergarten, and special education were the focus of a Tuesday forum comprised of District 51 legislative candidates.

A crowd of residents and school officials filled a Black Hawk Middle School auditorium on Oct. 9 to hear from the six contenders.

The forum, hosted by the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, included Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan; Jim Carlson, District 51 DFL candidate; Rep. Doug Wardlow, R-Eagan; Laurie Halverson, District 51B DFL candidate; Rep. Diane Anderson, R-Eagan; and Sandra Masin, District 51A DFL candidate.

The event also included legislative candidates for District 57, which represents Rosemount and Apple Valley.

Contenders didn’t hold back the mud slinging as they pointed fingers at one another for state education funding shifts.

Democrats blamed Republicans for the funding shifts imposed last legislative session, while Republicans pointed the finger at Democrats for previous funding shifts. Both blamed one another for the state’s budget deficits.

“We need to look at per pupil funding,” Anderson said. “District 196 is getting better funding now. Democrats gave more to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Republicans are funneling more to District 196.”

Additionally, Anderson noted that education comprises a large portion of the state budget to date.

Masin painted a very different picture, noting that Republicans have failed to adequately fund the school district.

“We need to keep up with inflation,” she said.

Masin said she is concerned changes to education funding have led to larger class sizes and additional fees imposed on families.

“I’m amazed how much it costs to keep families in public schools,” she said.

Masin added that the state has failed to properly fund early childhood education.

Halverson agreed that education has not been adequately funded under a Republican majority, adding that funding shifts have caused property taxes to jump by $370 million.

“We need to fund our schools appropriately and use our resources appropriately,” she said.

Halverson pointed out that, although District 196 passed a balanced budget last summer, it did so after making cuts for several years.

Wardlow echoed Anderson’s sentiments.

“What we need to do is not focus on more money but on making sure it’s going into the classrooms and not administration,” he said.

Daley agreed, saying that the state should focus on funding literacy initiatives, such as one created last session that aims to help children read at grade level by third grade.

“These are great reforms to improve performance,” he said.

Carlson strongly disagreed with the Republican candidates’ outlook on education funding.

“Anyone who says we are funding education adequately is wrong,” he said, noting that District 196 borrowed $15 million last summer to balance its budget as a result of funding shifts and the state shutdown.

Tax increases?

When asked whether they would raise taxes to adequately fund education, opponents again took very different paths.

Masin again accused Republicans of failing to balance the budget due to their stance on taxes.

“How can you balance a budget when you take a loan from the schools?” she asked rhetorically. “We need to figure out what our priorities are. We know that people are willing to fund things that are important to them.”

Halverson said she would be willing to raise taxes, but would want to first look for efficiencies that could be made.

“We need to look at the tax code,” she said. “It has become lopsided.”

Anderson and Wardlow were adamantly against raising taxes and noted during the last session that they managed to reduce government waste.

“We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” Wardlow said. “We need to stop funding downtown and failing schools — I mean decrease funding.”

Daley took the opportunity to thank various school employees from custodians to teachers but failed to address the question.

Carlson asked the moderator to repeat the question, saying it had gotten lost – a jab at Daley.

Carlson noted that, as a state senator from 2008 to 2010, he voted in favor of tax increases.

“Taxes have never been lower. It’s been on the decline since 1961,” he said. “People profit from our education system and should put some money back into it.”

All-day kindergarten

All of the Burnsville-Eagan candidates expressed support for all-day kindergarten but took differing viewpoints on a few details.

Masin said she supports all-day kindergarten and believes it needs to be made more affordable for middle and low-income families.

“There’s a substantial cost,” she said. “I hope districts will consider scholarships in the future.”

Halverson agreed.

“For families to not choose all-day kindergarten due to cost is saddening,” she said. “We need to make it available to all families.”

Wardlow said he favors all-day kindergarten as a way to expand choice, and said he believes in providing vouchers to make the program affordable and drive competition.

Daley said he believes the cost of all-day kindergarten should be determined by the school district.

“We should have that local control to determine what is best for the community,” he said.

Carlson disagreed, in part, saying that funding for all-day kindergarten and early childhood education should be incorporated into the state’s general education funding formula.

“We need to invest as much as we can,” he said.

Rather than take a position on the issue, Anderson said she would like to hear from constituents before making a decision.

Special education

When discussing special education funding, all candidates agreed that the program, which is federally mandated, is underfunded by the federal government.

“It’s an unfunded mandate,” Halverson said. “You won’t tie kids’ shoelaces together and ask them why they didn’t win the race.”

Halverson said she believes the state and federal government must work together to find long-term predictable funding for the program.

Wardlow took a slightly different approach, saying that he believes the mandate should be loosened to allow for innovation.

“We need local control to meet students’ needs,” he said.

Daley said he has little faith that the federal government will adequately fund the mandate due to the national debt.

“It’s relatively simple,” he said. “We need to grow jobs and the economy. With more people doing well, we will all do better.”

Carlson pointed to Republicans in Congress as the ones to blame for the lack of federal funding.

“Our 2nd District Congressman (John Kline) is the chair of the education committee and has not done anything,” he said. “When Obermueller is elected, we should go to him.”

Integration funds

District 196 receives $4 million in integration funding to close the achievement gap and address racially isolated schools. Candidates were split on whether to support this program.

Wardlow applauded District 196’s use of the funds and pointed to its magnet schools as a successful way to address integration issues.

“I’d like to repurpose these funds to look at what works – and fund those – and what doesn’t – and stop funding those,” he said. “We need to reward excellence.”

Daley agreed that the program needs reforms.

“While it’s used well in District 196, in lots of other districts it’s not used with a clear purpose,” he said. “We need to look at the bigger picture.”

Carlson disagreed, saying his focus is on the district he represents, not every school district in the state.

Anderson echoed Daley, adding that she believes too much funding goes to Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts.

Masin and Halverson said they support integration funding to improve learning opportunities for all students.

“We can’t be a system of the haves and have-nots,” Halverson said.

Preventing bullying in schools was one issue that brought all the candidates together.

Several candidates shared stories of their children facing the issue, and agreed that bullying should be addressed through partnerships between school districts and the state.