- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Senate Democrats added funding for school counselors and dual-credit programs to their list of education priorities on Wednesday, asking for about half of the state’s projected budget surplus in the process.

The bills join previous proposals to fund statewide preschool, expand the free breakfast program and offer child care tax credits to businesses and parents, among others. Senate Education Committee Chairman Chuck Wiger said the package’s exact cost isn’t yet clear, but he’d like to see the state spend an extra $500 million on education over the next two years - even more than in Gov. Mark Dayton’s education-heavy budget proposal.

“The need is there in the classrooms,” the Maplewood Democrat told reporters.

The push could be a tough sell in the Republican-controlled House, where leaders have expressed concerns over spending all of the projected $1 billion state surplus.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee, said she would rather increase the basic school funding formula than tie money to initiatives.

“I think it’s not only a fair way to fund schools,” the Eden Prairie Republican said. “But it also allows those schools to spend that money where they need it most.”

Wiger said Democrats will likely propose a bump in the overall funding formula, too.

The governor’s budget proposal includes a 1 percent increase in formula funding over each of the next two years and scaled-down versions of a few of the ideas Democrats have floated. He called the Senate Democrats’ priorities “excellent” in a statement released Wednesday.

Democrats in the Senate included universal preschool, workforce development and free community college in their early priorities this year. The new bills, focused on counselors and programs offering college credit to high school students, will meet dire needs statewide, their authors said Wednesday.

The American School Counselor Association ranked Minnesota’s ratio of 782 students per school counselor in the 2010 school year third-worst in the country. Schools also struggle to hire nurses, psychologists and other support staff, said Sen. Susan Kent.

The Woodbury Democrat wants to send more money to districts and leave it up to them to decide which professionals they need most.

Sen. Greg Clausen, a Democrat from Apple Valley, wants to infuse districts with extra dollars to include career and technical programs in their dual-credit offerings. Clausen’s proposal would also increase funding to colleges and universities so they could open more slots for high school students.

Budget bills probably won’t begin to move through the Legislature until March, following an updated economic forecast. Republicans in charge of the House will produce their own education plan before negotiations begin.

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