ST. PAUL -- Minnesota needs to spend about $4 billion more every two years to “fully fund” public schools and the state teachers union wants businesses and the wealthy to pick up the tab.

“We believe the public is on our side,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said at a Friday, Feb. 15, news conference. “There was a time when all Minnesotans believed and invested in our education system. … I think we know there is an imbalance in who is contributing to public education.”

Public schools get about $18 billion every two years from the state’s general fund. Adding $4 billion more would be a 22 percent increase and the state would have to raise taxes significantly to do so.

With divided political control of the Legislature and a long list of other priorities worth billions, an education funding increase of that magnitude is a long-shot at best. Democrats are typically generous to public schools in their budgets while Republicans argue that more money hasn’t led to widespread improvements in the state’s schools.

Specht acknowledged it was more of a long-term goal than a realistic proposal for the biennial budget lawmakers have to craft this legislative session. Gov. Tim Walz is set to make his first budget proposal Tuesday and he has said he wants to “fully fund” public schools.

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With that in mind, Specht said the teachers union set out to figure out exactly full funding would mean. She added that an unprecedented number of educators helped the former history teacher get elected governor.

Here’s a breakdown of what they want:

  • Fund state and federal special education mandates: $1.5 billion.
  • Tie the per pupil funding formula, which schools use for day-to-day expenses to inflation or to inflation plus 2 percent: $478 million to $865 million.
  • Universal half-day preschool: $500 million to $600 million.
  • More money for the Quality Compensation, of Q-Comp, teacher incentive program: $160 million.
  • Reduce student to licensed staff ratio by one: $744 million.
  • Student loan stipends for teachers: $252 million.
  • Increase wages for paraprofessionals and teachers’ aids to $15 per hour: $134 million.
  • More “full-service community schools,” which improves students’ access to social services: $75 million.

All of that adds up to between $3.7 billion and $4.33 billion, depending on how the per pupil funding formula is tied to inflation.

To make their case, Specht had educators relay the struggles they face at their schools that could be remedied with more funding.

Michelle Viera Keleny, a social worker in St. Paul schools, described how mental health is the top concern educators have for students. She noted that kids facing trauma in their lives struggle to learn and even participate in classes.

“Brains in pain cannot learn,” Viera Keleny said, noting the important role social workers play in helping students deal with trauma. “Stressed brains cannot learn.”

Victoria Arabanos, an academic behavior specialist in Robbinsdale Schools, said she and her fellow paraprofessionals do important work with students, but are paid “peanut salaries” that are less than workers at Target or Amazon.

“Elected officials have to stop telling us to work more for less,” Arabanos said.

Wendy Drugge, a Burnsville-Eagan-Savage teacher and union leader, said budget shortfalls have her district considering cutting back many of the programs, like art and music, that make students excited to come to school.

“The list goes on,” Drugge said.

There is already a long list of bills pending at the state Capitol to address some of public schools’ funding challenges, but none of them are of the size the teachers union leaders proposed Friday.

The state is projecting a $1.5 billion budget surplus, but most of it will likely be needed to cover inflationary costs.