Update for April 29: The Pressure Mounts

At the Capitol

The pressure is mounting! This overview of the political priorities and tensions between the Governor, the House and the Senate this week will help you understand the bigger picture. We often are asked, “Why not a bigger target of this year’s surplus for education?” This may help you understand why.

Governor Dayton sent a letter this week to House Speaker Daudt and Majority Leader Bakk to announce he is proposing an additional $52 million in education spending in his supplemental budget bill, targeted to more counselors and other supports ($13M) and a matching grant program for facilities upgrades for PreK programs ($40M). This is the same $52M that the House and Senate are using in their bills, found by early repayment of building loans by school districts that borrowed from the state.

Where are those omnibus bills?

Both House and Senate amended and passed their omnibus education bills this week off the full floor. Now it’s a matter of waiting for a conference committee to be appointed to iron out the differences. The House passed its combined education policy and funding bill HF 2749 on a vote of 84-46. The Senate’s funding provisions were processed in a larger supplemental appropriation bill now known as HF2749. It passed off the floor on a 39-24 vote. Their policy provisions are in SF 2744, which passed on a 51-9 vote. I know it sounds confusing, that’s because it is!

A few amendments accepted on the Senate floor moved closer in alignment to the House omnibus bill. The House bill includes a provision to require the Commissioner of Education to develop a detailed security plan that safeguards student data and privacy. A new amendment in the Senate bill addresses data security more explicitly by specifying security practices and prohibiting targeted advertising, creation of student profiles and the sale of student information.

The Senate added a provision to mirror the House bill requiring a Civics test. Statute will now mandate each district selects 50 questions from the 100 question test currently required to become a US citizen. A student must correctly answer 30 of those questions sometime between 7 and 12th grade. However, graduation CANNOT be denied to a student who does not complete this requirement. One wonders why this will be ensconced in law?

Amendments also passed into the House bill make that it more similar to the Senate. One adds an hour of suicide prevention training to the list of requirements teachers need to renew their licenses. Another adds a site team under World’s Best Workforce to make recommendations to districts about standardized testing, including an opt-out provision for parents. A provision requires any punitive compensation from a testing company that fails to perform be distributed among the affected schools. A third amendment calls for equitable distribution of the most effective, experienced and diverse teachers. Finally, while the House did not add competitive grants for more support staff like the Senate, it does require the Commissioner to study the expected use of a grant program and what it would cost.

School budgets have us singing the blues

Speaking of spending targets, Parents across the state are gathering in media centers and conference rooms to hear principals share news about how their children’s schools will be different this coming Fall. Much of that news involves cost-saving measures, including cuts to programs and teachers. Superintendents and the school boards who manage them will have to defend the choices being made. Debates among the public will be heated.

The Minnesota School Boards Association sent out an Action Alert:

  • Action need from: School board members and superintendents
  • Action: Ask legislative leaders to renegotiate their budgets to provide $45 million of the $900 million state budget surplus to the general education funding formula
  • When: Immediately
  • Why: Current budget targets do NOT provide enough ongoing funds for school districts

How: Call or email leadership TODAY (please see contact information and sample email message below). MSBA ACTION ALERT LINK

Don’t sing the blues, sing a different tuneJoin your local school boards in this effort

ESSA Update

We’ve been attending meetings at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) about how the newly reauthorized federal laws for public schools (now called ESSA, or the Every Student Succeeds Act) will impact Minnesota’s classrooms. Since the draft of the federal guidelines has been delayed, these have mostly been speculative conversations, with room for some good questions (and opinions) about classroom realities and hopes.

One ESSA meeting that was particularly interesting focused on Standards and Assessments. Minnesota actually has rigorous standards for content knowledge and skills. We have laws that require us to review those standards on a regular basis, and compare them with the best in the nation to make sure we’re up to date.

The Assessment requirements from the Federal government are the way that the Feds ensure the state’s schools are accountable for student learning. Each state creates its own assessment to comply with these requirements. Minnesota’s is the MCA’s. Increasingly, standardized tests are the benchmark for whether teachers, principals and districts are doing their jobs. Linking standardized tests to effective teaching is not without controversy.

One of the things discussed at the meeting is that ESSA will allow seven Innovative Assessment Grants for either individual states or groups of states who wish to explore systems for using assessments differently to meet standards and accountability requirements. If Minnesota chose to apply, there might be room for an alternative to traditional standardized tests.

Might a system be able to use the NWEA’s and MAPS that Minnesota teachers are already using to inform their instruction and follow student progress? Many people in the room were pretty excited by the possibility that Minnesota could use an alternative to the MCA’s to satisfy state and Federal requirements – one that’s more directly useful for instruction and reduces the time and money they require. To be clear, there’s no promise Minnesota will apply, but MDE acknowledges the possibility.

It was also clear that the MDE’s Regional Centers of Excellence provide tangible supports across the state for implementation and oversight of the standards Minnesota law so purposefully updates. It is ironic that funding for these Centers has been eliminated in the current House Omnibus bill.

In addition to the possibility of an alternative accountability system, ESSA has some interesting and welcome language that requires education to be “well-rounded.” Exactly what that means remains to be seen, but everyone seems to agree we need to make STEM, the arts, social studies, music and soft skills a priority in a climate that tends to make reading, writing and math predominant.

Another nice reminder at this meeting was that MDE is working hard to ensure ESSA requirements dovetail well with Minnesota’s World’s Best Workforce laws.

Elections Matter

We hope that our adage “Good schools begin at the ballot box…” will be one of the pieces of Parents United you’ll carry with you. Now is a good time to start looking at education platforms not only of the presidential candidates, but also of your local and state representatives running for election in 2016.

Worth a Second Look

Listen critically to MPR’s broadcast of a discussion between Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Mitch Pearlstein of the Center of the American Experiment, and Catherine Squires of the University of Minnesota, “Why Haven’t We Closed the Achievement Gap Yet?”

Prince
In a world of budget cuts, one Prince fan reflects on the power of music on children’s learning. And a former classmate of Prince, who went on to become a teacher, wrote a letter, saying, “Today is a perfect opportunity for us and our students to take another look at that person at school that we have been underestimating.

What is Parents United’s agenda? Our agenda is 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. 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.