Watching something big – Update for March 14, 2014

Two words describe this week at the Capitol: LOUD and ANXIOUS. The halls were overflowing with constituents, visitors, lobbyists and advocates all wanting to hear or be heard. And anxiety has been palpable because everyone is waiting for the House to announce targets*.

While this isn’t a funding year, there are certainly unmet needs for schools that were not addressed in last year’s appropriation. The 2013 bill provided schools dollars that helped move them from having the buying power of 2003 to having the buying power of 2007-09.

Often heard: “When is enough, enough?” – meaning school people are always looking for more money! Well, I have an answer – link the per pupil formula to inflation (IPD) and fully fund special education costs. Let’s start there. Hasn’t been done, worth a try!

The state budget has been in deficit so long, what is Minnesota’s track record when we have a surplus?

*Targets: Spending targets are set by the House and Senate leadership in late February or early March following the release of the February state budget forecast. Finance divisions of both bodies then work within their respective spending targets to develop bills.

In this Update:

Large sweeping 21st century bills!

Sometimes, you just know you’re a spectator of something very big. That is happening right now, right here in Minnesota. The next two education bills will provide sweeping change for our students and their schools.

First, working to improve school climate, the Safe and Supportive Schools Act (more below) is making the case that children need to feel safe in their learning environments in order to succeed. No longer is bullying to be seen as a rite of passage, an unavoidable part of growing up and “toughing up,” but rather as it really is – a substantial impediment to a child’s ability to learn.

Next, citing the growing multi-lingual culture of Minnesota and the need for a global workforce, Rep. Carlos Mariani and Senator Patricia Torres Ray have introduced a major English Language Learner policy reform bill called LEAPS. Linked with the World’s Best Work Force legislation and the Regional Centers of Excellence, both passed in 2013, this bill establishes a policy framework that begins and ends with the correct supposition that English language learners are assets not deficits. They do not “need to be fixed.” Rather, we need to fix the capacity of our education system.

A word about the “Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success Act from the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership:

ELL [English Language Learner] students are the fastest growing student group in MN and face the biggest opportunity gaps in academic achievement. The bill drives race equity by shifting how Minnesota views English language learning students to where their home language is seen not as a problem to be fixed but rather, as an asset that Minnesota can call upon to achieve academic excellence. Local educators, like Ramona Rosales at Academia Cesar Chavez and national researchers from California and Arizona have collaborated to shape the bill.

Research tells us that strengthening native home languages has multiple outcomes important to our state: it is an effective way to strengthen English proficiency, it can be powerfully used to strengthen acquisition of content knowledge (science, math etc) and it can help to produce citizens who are multi-lingually proficient – an important global citizenship skill vital to MN’s success in the 21st Century.

MN will not thrive unless we are successful with ELL students. This bill attempts to provide the new frame needed to do that.

Safe and Supportive Schools Act

Hands down, the bill that captured public attention this week was the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, HF 826. Hundreds of people showed up to support or oppose the bill. The author presented a DE (Delete Everything) amendment, making the bill more workable in implementation. Still at issue for some is naming sexual identity and orientation as protected classes. Those testifying against the bill misinterpreted this as ONLY protecting the listed groups, causing outrage from some, even while the author repeatedly read parts of the bill clearly requiring ALL students be protected from bullying. The bill will next be seen in Senate Finance. This MinnPost article did a fine job of capturing the flavor of the hearing.

Returning to last year’s legislation: refining LER

Bills to improve, tweak or expand the Location Equity Revenue signed into law last year were heard in both House and Senate Education committees. The LER was intended to account for dissimilar costs of doing business in different regions of the state. The agreement last year allowed metro school districts to use $424 from their voter-approved levy dollars toward accounting for these cost differences – regional centers were allowed half that; about 100 schools qualify for the dollars. The year before, another categorical, “small schools revenue,” was given to – surprise – small schools to deal with their issues.

Not dissimilar to most funding actions over the years, these approaches have created a “doughnut hole” of school funding: districts that receive neither LER funds nor small schools revenue.

The LER bills coming forward this year are aiming to refine this mechanism. Various methods, from allowing all schools to receive $424 to “just let MY district have it,” are being presented. All LER bills have been held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill, allowing legislators to consider the variety of approaches in relation to the dollars they have to spend.

The testimony from the Association of Metropolitan School Districts was compelling since it pointed out that while the vast majority of people believe LER was a boon for the metro area, it advantaged school districts in greater Minnesota as much or more. Greater Minnesota schools received aid while the metro area received no money, just decreases in property taxes.

CAUTION, a personal statement (or rant, if you prefer): It was interesting to hear legislators bemoan the use of categorical funding to deal with basic school needs. They were quick to point out that this is a sure fire method of creating “winners and losers.” Interesting? Yes, because the per pupil formula is meant to be an adequate amount for a basic education in Minnesota and the rise of categoricals is simply a symptom of NOT having legislation keep the formula in line with inflation since 2003! Remember Rep. Greiling valiantly trying to move forward the New Minnesota Miracle bill? There was no money at the time, so she attempted to place the formula change into statute and phase it in when and if the state had dollars. But that was not to be. So the bemoaning leads me to ponder the old quandary: if you start a fire, do you get credit for putting it out?

A Spectator in a Non-spectator Sport

Many of you have met Ann Hobbie, our Project Manager at Parents United. This session is an “all hands on deck” session and Ann has been more actively involved monitoring legislation. Her insights are very, very interesting.

One of my favorite often-heard quotes at our office is, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” I’ve decided this session to get more involved in the goings-on at the Capitol, so I’m monitoring the House K-12 Ed Finance Committee. Who said you couldn’t watch and learn? It’s a bit like turning on the TV to watch a seasons-old serial drama for the first time. You don’t know what’s going on right away – especially in the backstory – but it doesn’t take long to get the gist. My early observations and surprises are these:

  1. It’s complicated but it isn’t. Debt service. Building lease levy. Operating capital revenue allowances. Alternative facilities revenue. Capitol projects referendum levy. Location equity index. There are many terms I don’t understand, but when I sit back and listen to the overall message, the picture comes into enough focus. The needs of students vary in our state, and some are more expensive to educate than others. Some cost differences lie within the kids and their circumstances. Other differences come from where in the state they live and how much it costs to “do business” in those areas.
  2. At the Mercy of the Chairs. I confess I knew this one already, but it’s interesting to see how rapidly agendas and meetings can change. The work is fast, furious and knee-deep – things can shift with the wind. A bill is on, then it’s off. The chair of the committees runs the show, deciding which bills will be heard and keeping things moving at a steady beat. So far, I’ve been impressed by how cordial and fair minded these ed chairs are in running their committee meetings.
  3. These are your neighbors.  Your representatives are just people. Some are serious while others consistently have a sense of humor. They can disagree but thus far have been very respectful in those differences. Some seem to have the story down more clearly than others. Some are very quiet (have yet to hear them speak), while others ask questions and share opinions frequently. Behaviors, quips and questions become almost predictable as I learn personalities and perspectives. And for the most part, they appear to be there to get their work done. They certainly aren’t there for the coffee (though they are starting to need more of it, which is hard to find on the premises, given the hours they’re starting to keep). Food truck alert – the Capitol could use you!
  4. There’s more agreement (sometimes) than you might think. While you might not see it later in the session – when the votes really count, re-election campaigns loom and credit is taken or given – there is often a fair amount of agreement among most members on both sides of the aisle. Maybe its beginner’s luck, but thus far I am surprised more by agreement than by differences.
  5. Lawmaking Is Work-Making.  Bills become laws in order to fix problems. That’s the idea. But implementing laws is seldom simple. Once a law passes, there is often a lot of work that needs to happen in order to see it through effectively. Oversight of the implementation is half the battle – without good implementation, a statute can be hollow. Often working groups are created to make a law become a reality, and often those groups function under pretty tight timelines. (Oversight is also one of the “things we pay attention to” at Parents United, btw.) I served on the Teacher Evaluation Working Group and can attest to the hours and hours of meetings, reading and research, arguing and compromise that some 50 individuals put into helping the MDE create a fair state model. Add to that the fact that many laws are passed with “no cost” perceived (no “fiscal note” attached). We now are hearing all sorts of recommendations from task forces trying to implement laws that illustrate the hidden costs to good compliance.

 It’s interesting stuff, and I invite you to find time a day or two and come down and spectate for yourself!

New idea for the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examinations (MTLE)

Several of you have asked us to watch legislation around this teacher licensure issue. The use of the MTLE has been questioned since its inception. Much testimony has been given about the disproportionate number of people of color, English learners and learning disabled teachers unable to pass this test. This bill has been laid aside for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

In HF 2871 Rep. Yarusso does an elegant job placing the recommendations of the Teacher Licensure Task Force in statute. The companion SF2646 is being carried by Sen. Dahle.

The most compelling testimony came from Jim Barnhill, a special education teacher and a member of the Board of Teaching. Using special education verbiage, he explained the difference between accommodation and modification. A person with special needs may need an accommodation to demonstrate proficiency of a subject. This DOES NOT lower the standard of what is required; it simply allows an alternative method to show competence. Modification IS a lessening of the standard.

The change HF 2871 is proposing is an ACCOMODATION, not a modification. However, minority members and several testifiers continued attacking the action saying it allowed less qualified teachers to attain licensure. Chair Mariani strongly admonished those using erroneous language.

What is meant by “Career and College Ready?”

We hear it all the time – as parents, educators, students, and as future employees of our school-aged kids in Minnesota. HF 2776 (Brynaert-DFL-Mankato) attempts to lay out the steps of how we arrive there.

The Career Pathways and Technical Education Task Force recommends the following working definition:

“Career (Workforce) and College Readiness” means that a high school graduate has the knowledge, skills and competencies to successfully embark on a career pathway for an employment position and can successfully pursue postsecondary education opportunity, whether it be a degree, a diploma, a certificate, or industry recognized credential. Students who are career and college ready have the ability to successfully complete credit-bearing coursework at a two- year or four-year college or university without need for remediation.

The goal is to help people understand that it is vital to be both career and college ready – to spell out what that exactly means and how to get there by ways of partnerships, parent education, staff development, teacher training, on the job training, K-12/post-secondary alignment and the essential conversations about the different keys and career paths to success and other options besides a four-year degree. The transition from high school to a post-secondary education or career interest needs to be more mindful and effective. It also focuses and assesses the individual student’s needs and learning styles so they can be career and college ready, knowing that every student on this path does not have the same needs.

House File 2776 attempts to clarify the elements of Minnesota’s career pathways and technical education system, while being consistent with the nine policy recommendations of the task force. A few of note:

  • Students get regular and frequent access to individuals within the school and community who can provide reliable and accurate information and resources about post-secondary education and career and technical options.
  • All MN families – families of youth with disabilities, socio-economic challenges, and first generation college-bound students – will have the opportunity to engage in students’ planning activities and will have access to training and resources so they can help their youth make appropriate career planning and educational choices.
  • Students will be allowed opportunities for experiential learning like job shadowing, mentoring, entrepreneurship, service learning, volunteering, internships or apprenticeships.

Documents, articles, and research information shared and discussed by the committee.

A Look Ahead

Look forward to more teacher licensure discussion (this time in the Senate), the MDE’s education bill, an announcement about “targets” and a whole host of potential bills. We will be looking for the Safe and Supportive Schools Act to come into Senate Finance. Keep your eye on the Capitol Calendar because things change quickly. And again, if you want to see what COULD be on the docket, check out the House and Senate bill introductions – it is kind of the “at bat” holding zone for potential bills.

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

,