HELENA - Gov. Brian Schweitzer's $138 million school funding proposal won initial approval in the Senate on Tuesday, surviving an attempt by Republicans to strip it of optional all-day kindergarten.
The measure contains money for nearly all of the governor's education goals for the next two years, including all-day kindergarten, inflationary increases for schools, student loan forgiveness for teachers and a program to fund school construction and upkeep.
It passed out of committee unanimously, and was endorsed, 35-14, by the full Senate, with 10 Republicans siding with Democrats and supporting the bill. A final vote is scheduled today.
"This is a commitment of something we started in the last session about education for life," bill sponsor Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, said.
Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, proposed removing the bill's all-day kindergarten provision, saying it virtually duplicated a kindergarten bill endorsed by senators the day before. That measure, sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, won final approval, 35-15, Tuesday and was sent to the House for further debate.
"I can see no reason for us to have two separate full-time kindergarten bills to send over to the House," Black said. "I think we ought to select the best of the kindergarten bills and pass it."
Ryan said both bills were needed to protect the idea of all-day kindergarten.
Senators, he said, can add the kindergarten provision back into Ryan's broader bill if it is removed by the GOP-controlled House. The Senate won't have that option if Williams' bill doesn't make it out of committee or the House floor.
"If we scrap kindergarten out of this bill, we give the House a wonderful opportunity to have kindergarten killed in one fell swoop," Ryan said.
Senate Republicans withdrew five remaining efforts to amend the bill after Black's amendment failed, 27-22.
Speaking on behalf of the GOP, Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton of Billings said Democrats had "sort of laid down the gauntlet" on the issue and stressed that approval of the two bills "doesn't stand for much."
"We're just halfway through," he said. "I don't know that we have a whole lot more to say on it."
The governor's measure also proposes enhancements to Schweitzer's college scholarship program and would change state law to allow the creation of new school districts under certain circumstances.
"I urge you to give this strong support," Ryan said. "It's not Democrats, it's the Senate telling the House that we as a community, Republicans and Democrats alike, believe we need to adequately fund our education system in the state. We can't use inadequate resources as an excuse anymore."
The state was sued over school funding by a group of education interests in 2002. State and district courts declared the funding system unconstitutional in 2004, and lawmakers spent most of 2005 approving more money for schools, reworking the funding formula and defining the components of a quality education.
A state judge will consider whether to hold a hearing on the 2007 Legislature's progress on the issue after the session ends in April.