Partisan games keep citizens out of Minnesota integration debate

/ 13 April 2012 / jennifer

Alleen Brown, Twin Cities Daily Planet, April 13, 2012 –

Susan Larson has two sons who attended the East Metro Integration District school Crosswinds. Her sons thrived there, she said, in part because of a school focus on integration.

Larson planned to testify about her experience at the long-awaited House hearing onstate integration funding. Her kids’ school is not funded by the integration revenue scheduled for re-purposing in 2014, but the EMID district uses funding to share some of Crosswinds’ best practices with other districts.

Larson signed up for email alerts that would tell her when the hearing would be scheduled. Education finance committee staff told her she could sign up to testify once she received that email.

She got it, and April 16 was the date. A few lines down, the notice read “Invited Testimony Only.”

The message was unexpected, and, according to some familiar with legislative processes, unusual. But it was not out of sync with what’s been happening with integration legislation in the last couple months. It’s the latest in a long line of incidents that have hinted that, despite the submission of an unexpectedlybipartisan integration plan written by a legislature-approved task force, the Republican-controlled legislature may never have planned to repurpose integration funding, and certainly not this year.

The integration situation points to a legislative system that increasingly discourages the involvement of non-politicians. Typically, the incomprehensibility and lack of common knowledge surrounding the legislative process is enough to keep the average citizen from driving to the capital to testify on a bill. Bipartisan bickering doesn’t help. Explicitly telling citizens they’re not invited to speak takes a step beyond.

According to the House education finance committee chair, Republican Pat Garofalo, the guy who sets up education finance hearings and decides who gets to come, it’s not unusual to limit testimony to invited speakers. In this case, he said integration task force co-chairs Peter Swenson and Scott Thomas have the information the committee needs.

The committee’s minority leader, Democrat Mindy Greiling, disagrees. “It’s not very useful to just have the report presented. Most of us have looked at the report,” Greiling said. “This is just unheard of, to only be invited people.”

The rest of the iceberg

Larson and other would-be testifiers are only the tip of the iceberg.

This summer, during the state shutdown over the budget, the legislature struck a deal with Governor Dayton that would sunset the rules for integration funding in 2014. That means the funding formula and rules guiding the money’s use would go away, but the money itself would not. In the meantime, a bipartisan task force would draft new rules to guide how the money should be used in the future.

And new rules were needed. An audit in 2005 showed the use of the funding was out of sync with its purpose of promoting integrated schools. In 2007, legislation added closing the achievement gap to the money’s list of goals, but added no corresponding changes to the funding formula or new guidelines.

Greiling and others had very little confidence that the appointed task force would be able to do the job. Many assumed it was set up to fail — the corresponding assumption being that no one is willing to cross party lines to make anything happen, especially on something so contentious as integration.

But the group did not fail. Of 12 members, 10 agreed on a set of recommendations, right on time for the legislature-provided deadline. Conservative columnist Katherine Kersten was one dissenter, and co-chair Swenson was the other. Swenson agreed that integration is important, but he didn’t like all the terms of the recommendations.

The legislative maze

The expected next step would be for the Senate and House to schedule hearings to discuss the recommendations. The point of a hearing is to work the kinks out of a bill or plan before it’s made law. By listening to testimony, legislators might discover unintended consequences to their plans.

Typically, once invited testifiers finish, there’s time for the public to comment. Community members can sign up before a hearing or just show up and put their name on a list. Sometimes there’s not enough time to hear everyone, but usually there’s at least an opportunity to try.

For a long time, the hearing wasn’t scheduled at all. The Senate heard Kersten’s minority report, but not the bipartisan version. In the House, Garofalo was responsible for setting up a hearing. He didn’t do it.

So Democrat Rep. Carlos Mariani, who sat on the integration task force, introduced an amendment to include the task force’s recommendations in Garofalo’s omnibus bill. Garofalo shot it down, saying that such a complex issue requires a hearing. This is where you might consider putting your head between your knees.

After many requests by Greiling, Mariani and groups like Parents United, Garofalo finally scheduled a hearing for April 4 — two days before the deadline for bills to pass through committee on April 6.

Task force co-chair Scott Thomas happened to be out of town, so Garofalo rescheduled the hearing for April 16 at 10:15 am. That’s the same morning legislators get back from a weeklong recess and, coincidentally, the same morning Greiling is scheduled to receive an award from Parents United.

The date also falls past the April 6 deadline, making it very unlikely that any integration legislation will pass this session.

Back to Susan

Finally, we loop back to Susan Larson, who is unlikely to testify on April 16. She’s not the only one disappointed. Eric Celeste, another EMID parent, was going to go. He said he knows of a couple other parents as well as a teacher and a principal who had also expressed interest in testifying. Education advocate and former Minneapolis school board member Pam Costain had planned to testify.

Garofalo told the Daily Planet he was unaware that parents and community members had contacted his office, interested in testifying.

“Calling a state office and saying, ‘I want to testify’ is scary,’” said Parents United executive director Mary Cecconi. “There may be hundreds who want to testify, but those who feel comfortable enough to do it might be 20.”

“To see something like this is even more off-putting,” she added. “A couple parents — they were too cowed to call.”

“[Garofalo already has] all the power. The only way for someone who doesn’t have that power to enter into the conversation in any kind of decent way is to have fair rules,” Cecconi said.

So far, the public hasn’t had much opportunity to enter into the conversation. Dayton’s deal last summer was made behind closed doors. The public did testify at the task force’s meetings, but a tight deadline did not allow time for community members to comment on the task force’s final recommendations.

The last couple months have been disempowering also for task force members like Thomas. “The fact that we took it as seriously as we did, and came to a consensus, and to have that consensus ignored is absolutely maddening,” he said. Task force members were unpaid for the many hours they worked, and their recommendations represent time and input from dozens of educators, researchers, lawyers and parents.

But it’s not over yet

Not passing legislation this year does not spell death for integration funding. Schools will receive money by the current formula for the 2012-2013 school year. After that, the funding formula and rules around it disappear, but the money doesn’t. That was part of the deal that Dayton made, to add incentive for legislators to actually create new rules.

With no new rules, in 2014 the money would be set aside with no formula to distribute it or rules determining how it should be used. It’s a little unclear what would happen. In tough fiscal years, no money goes unspent. A house nonpartisan fiscal staff member said unallocated integration money could go back into the state’s general fund.

There’s still time to set new rules in the 2013 legislative session, but by then there will be a whole new legislature. It was this legislature that asked for a task force.

In the meantime, programs that depend on the funding, and parents who depend on the programs, face uncertainty.