Monday, May 16, 2005

COLUMN -- Politics trumps needs of Minnesota's kids

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:08 AM |  

Monday, May 16, 2005

Despite public support, especially from communities of color, parental school choice is on the brink of extinction in this legislative session.

Educational access grant legislation for low-income families was killed in committee. Until last week, it appeared that a tuition credit for low-income families would be part of the Senate tax omnibus bill.

Enter the power brokers.

The tuition tax credit was removed from the omnibus bill to secure the vote of Sen. Steve Kelley, D-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who was also instrumental in killing the educational access grant legislation in his committee.

The saga of efforts to provide low-income families educational choice is an object lesson in how the political whims and careers of legislators take precedence over the futures of real children.

Given political realities, it was unsurprising when the educational access grant legislation proposed by Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, didn't make it out of committee. The controversial Hann/Buesgens legislation would have granted low-income families tuition aid at accredited private schools.

The House committee, chaired by Buesgens, divided along party lines. By a narrow party line vote, Republicans were able to defeat 23 DFL amendments that would have effectively killed the bill. The committee had run well into the night when Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, not present for most of the meeting, made a motion to table the bill (without consulting with author Buesgens). This swung the majority, and the bill was tabled. Buesgens did not have sufficient support to reopen it.

Abeler's political play effectively killed the bill without his having to go on the record opposing school choice or his caucus.

Hann had even less chance in the Senate Education Committee chaired by Kelley. Kelley was pretty clear where he stood on the Hann bill in a debate with Hann on Minnesota Public Radio. He characterized the access grant legislation as a "money laundering scheme."

In a strident response to an MPR caller who asked how he Kelley could look a parent in the eye and vote against the opportunity for a better education, Kelley responded, "I can look a parent in the eye and say if your student is in danger of failing maybe you haven't been involved enough in your child's education regardless of what school it is."

And yet Kelley's opposition to a tax credit for tuition already being spent by low-income parents essentially punishes the very involvement in a child's education that Kelley chastised the straw-parent for lacking.

With support from Senate Tax Committee Chairman Larry Pogemiller, DFL- Minneapolis, and bi-partisan support in committee, Sen. Julianne Ortman, R- Chanhassen, authored the tuition tax credit and managed to have it included in the Senate omnibus tax bill, where it appeared secure — until the controversy stirred up by the DFL proposal for an 11 percent tax increase on wealthy Minnesotans made it into the omnibus bill.

In order to secure DFL caucus unanimity in the face of controversy, Pogemiller polled the caucus for any objections that might cause members to vote against the omnibus tax bill. That's when the Ortman tuition tax credit amendment was stripped from the bill.

Kelley's opposition to providing low-income families with educational choice is consistent with his lock-step march with public school administrators and Education Minnesota. Having ousted a strong commissioner of education (Kelley was the prime mover in the non-confirmation of Cheri Yecke), Chairman Kelley is operating with an unchecked arrogance on education policy.

That will have political ramifications. Many people of color who testified in favor of the Hann bill before Kelley's committee were taken aback by Kelly's harsh treatment of testifiers — most of whom were not paid professionals, but concerned parents — and are now likely reconsidering their Democratic sympathies. [Committee Hearing Audio --April 5 Education Committee. Hann bill testimony starts at approximate 3:09 of the hearing. Kelley arrives late due to responsibility at a concurrent committee.]

That brings us to where we are today. Providing tuition credit for low-income families should be a prudent and moral no-brainer. Instead, it will take a political act of courage by either Pogemiller or Gov. Tim Pawlenty to insist on including the Ortman tuition tax credit in the omnibus tax bill.

The political reality is communities of color are up for grabs. Kelley has alienated them; Pogemiller can do damage control; Pawlenty can inspire Republican inroads. Morally, is there any question educational opportunity ought come before political ambition?


My emphasis in this column was on the tuition tax credit portion of legislation. A note from From Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud reminds me that still alive in the House omnibus bill is a significant change to the family cap calculation for the education tax credit. There was similar language in the Ortmen bill as well, that died with the tuition tax credit in the Senate, although the family cap provision is still alive in a second senate version of the omnibus tax bill.

From Rep. Knoblach --
Craig, I read your article in the Pioneer Press today and was surprised you did not mention the progress we have made on school choice in the House.

I am the author in the House of the bill Senator Ortman has authored in the Senate. The House Tax Committee included that portion of the bill that lifts the family cap in their Omnibus Tax bill. More importantly, I was able to get an amendment added during bill markup that changes eligibility to 185% of the poverty line or the current $33,500, whichever is greater, and also eliminates the requirement of families to assign costs between children, instead just allowing a credit of $1000 multiplied by the number of children.

Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis and the DFL did attempt to eliminate this on the House floor but their effort was turned back. While it does not include private school tuition, and is major progress and I will certainly be working hard to see that it lasts through conference.
Update: King Bananian Checks in on Today's Column

Especially note the link to a progressive argument supporting school choice. Another, local, liberal perspective supporting school choice can be found here.