Strap on that seat belt! Update for March 7, 2014

Best quote of the week – Chair Marquart, at the end of a hearing: “Now I can unfasten my seat belt!” As expected, bills are moving quickly. At this point committees are “hearing” bills (members’ proposals and requests). Being an “Un-session” (more on that below) and a time to deal with infrastructure issues, most bills deal with policy changes or bonding requests. 

This Week at the Capitol

A potpourri of bills outlined bonding needs for libraries, school sites and the Myles Reif Center for the Performing Arts in Grand Rapids. There were requests for grants to the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood and Minneapolis Northside Achievement Zone, funding for projects aimed at early intervention for high-risk children and youth, as well as mental health screening and assessment procedures.

A bill proposing the implementation of recommendations from the Special Education Case Load and Rule Alignment Task Force was heard in addition to the perennial request from educators and legislators alike to reduce the mountain of paper work required for special education.

With recent news articles drawing attention to students denied school lunch, there was a laser focus on dealing with methods to provide school lunches to every child, regardless of family income. Testimony was consistent in reiterating that for many children school meals provide the most nutritious food they eat in a day. While a few bills dealt with complex mechanisms to deal with unmet costs, HF2480 simply provides lunch to all children who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs; qualification is based on federal income guidelines (currently, families qualifying for reduced price lunch pay $.40 per meal). Passage of this bill would cost the state approximately $3.5 million annually. HF2480 is now on its way to House Ways and Means. At this point, there is no companion bill in the Senate.

Alright, so I lied – there were TWO “best quotes of the week”!

After listening to the School Financing Working Group Report, Chair Wiger stated: “Reports shouldn’t gather dust, but momentum!” Cheers went up! The issue of how to improve funding mechanisms for school facilities has been on the legislative docket for a very long time. Several “enhancements” to our current system, meant to level the playing field between low and high property wealth districts, were last improved in 1993 in the wake of the Skeen lawsuit.

The School Facilities Financing Working group (whew, they really need to shorten these group names) provided a report outlining a comprehensive method of dealing with our school facilities. The recommendations from the group were unanimous and received overwhelming support from testifiers.

Acceptance of the recommendations from the group will greatly improve the method of funding school facilities by making it more equitable, sustainable and a bit more adequate. I’d like to say all will be well; however, even after recommendations are fully funded, increasing the operating capital allowance would restore the purchasing power of schools to 2007 levels. One legislator questioned whether we would have too many “snazzy schools.”

If you are interested in the nitty-gritty of these recommendations, I suggest a look at pages 37-44 of the full report [pdf].

What do Minnesota small businesses need to thrive?

There’s an essential relationship between business (especially small businesses), the state economy and schools, and much is made about “what small businesses need to succeed.” It might be a great idea to see what they see as their 2014 Legislative priorities (Small Business Minnesota).

Unfinished business

The Safe and Supportive Schools Act passed through the House last year but in the final hours of the session it was referred to Senate Finance where it was scheduled to be heard this week. However, in response to legitimate concerns with the difficulty of implementing the law, work is being done to smooth the edges off and make it a better bill. We have heard that it will be in Senate Education next Tuesday, March 11.

Monday’s rally in support of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act rocked the rotunda!

Why is 2014 being called an “Un-session” and BTW, what is an “Un-session?”

Meet our newest eyes and ears at the Capitol, Heidi Huelster, a Parents United board member pitching in to monitor/track legislation this year. As a relative newbie to the legislative process, she will be providing us her insights as a parent of young children.

I’m a sucker for easy explanations.

I found it incredibly refreshing, while attending the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits legislative kick-off event, to hear Commissioner Tony Sertich sum up what an “Un Session” is. It’s what I kept on hearing – “In the Spirit of the Un-Session!” “We deem this the Un-Session!” Here’s what I understand: This is a short legislative session, it’s the second year of the biennium, it’s an election year for the House, there is a robust bonding bill on the table, and there needs to be a “garage sale” of laws (Commissioner Sertich’s words, not mine).

Do our current laws still serve a need? Are there barriers that are getting in the way of creating sufficient services? What’s outdated? Legislators look at these laws line by line and ask themselves if it’s serving its original purpose.

OK, this makes sense to me. I’m all about cleaning up shop and that’s why 2014 is being called an “Un-session.”

Kudos to Minnesota!

Last week, in the House Education Finance Committee, Education Commissioner Cassellius reported on the implementation of recently passed legislation. Much of the work of the legislature and MN Department of Education over the last three years has been to provide a structure for individual school districts to do their work.

The NCLB waiver, the establishment of Regional Centers of Excellence to provide support for schools, the change from a simple proficiency rating to the use of a Multiple Measurement Rating system, recommendations to improve the funding of schools, the evaluation of teachers and principals and many, many more strategies all provide Minnesota an accountability system and a method to service the people of the state. It is good to see this systemic work being highlighted nationally.

A Look Ahead

Next Tuesday, March 11, look for the Safe and Supportive Schools Act hearing in Senate Education. Also next Tuesday, in House Education Finance, bills are being heard that implement components of the recommendations from the School Facilities Financing Working Group (again, shorten the name!!)

Committee agendas are frequently being changed, with the addition or removal of bills to be heard. To see what bills are scheduled to be heard on any given day, link to the committee home page, which you can do from our At the Capitol page. Each bill to be heard will be hyperlinked and easily accessible.

Reminder: don’t come to the Capitol without first checking to see if the committee is actually meeting and if the bill you are interested in has been removed from the agenda! All this information can be quickly found on the Minnesota State Legislature front page calendar.

A way to see what may be upcoming is to take a look at House and Senate bill introductions. To make this easier, we pull out just bills currently referred to education committees. This list grows every day so check back each week.

FYI: Since Committee chairs select which bills they will hear, the vast majority of “bill introductions” may never make it to a hearing.

Worth a second look

On our website, Parents United provides links to our Daily News Picks! These are education articles that catch our eye. A few of those articles are worth a second look either because they are so compelling or because they provide context for an issue currently being debated at the Capitol:

Interesting bills to view

Rarely seen these days: a bi-partisan bill! This newly introduced bill is smart, transparent and aligned with the recently passed World’s Best Work Force (WBWF) legislation. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Senators Chamberlain, Clausen, Kent and Nelson introduced – S.F. No. 2301: A bill for an act relating to education; amending local literacy plans; amending Minnesota Statutes 2012, section 120B.12, subdivision 4a. Referred to the Committee on Education.

What is Parents United’s agenda? It’s simple: we don’t speak for parents, but work to provide credible, timely information about education policy and the law-making process so parents can speak for themselves. Truth be told, Parents United is a translator of complex terms and policy implications, as well as a navigator for a legislative process often oblique to the public.


Mary Cecconi, Executive Director
Parents United for Public Schools

mary@parentsunited.org
1667 Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul, MN 55108
651-999-7391; www.parentsunited.org