Update for April 8, 2016: Great Need, Few Dollars

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One of the most important functions of these Updates is to share current legislative activities regarding potential policy making with parents across Minnesota. While we have a diverse and far reaching database, we are always looking to broaden the number of people “in the know.” Please share our Update with friends whom you believe will benefit from the information!

At the Capitol

Not unexpected, this week’s hearings were jammed with bills, bills with funding requests from individual school districts, non-profits, in-school and after school programs…all doing tremendous work, all closing gaps, all helping students and all needing funding. Unfortunately, current funding, no matter how you cut it, will cover very, very few of these requests.

Last year, when balancing the budget, over $800 million was “left on the table.” That $800 million grew to the $900 million surplus we often hear of. The Governor‘s supplemental budget was released Tuesday–for education it means $60 million. The Senate has said they will announce their use of the surplus next week. But Thursday, the House released its priorities.

The GOP-led House believes the surplus dollars should be used for tax cuts and transportation, therefore no dollars from the surplus will be spent on K-12 or higher education.

However, two bills (HF2902 and HF3043) presented by Chair Loon, if passed, will net $54 million for her committee to spend on education. Some call this smart–others call it “money to spread to their ‘vulnerables.’” This last statement may call for a bit of a political primer.

Most swing districts—those that swing from GOP to DFL and back again year after year, are located in the suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities and they are called “vulnerables.” The old nugget is that spending money on schools and tax cuts wins legislative races in suburbs. In an election year, a party needs to spend on schools, especially in a surplus year, or place these vulnerable legislators’ reelections at risk. It appears this session will end the same way many, many sessions of the past have ended with the big 5 (the Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, the Minority leader of the House and the Minority Leader of the Senate) in a room coming up with a global agreement on how to spend the surplus. I wouldn’t expect that agreement too soon.

The Governor’s Education Budget

The Governor’s 2016 use of the surplus spends $700 million, with $200 million saved in rainy day funds. Sixty million is allocated to education in total. His priorities are early childhood education, special education, the teacher shortage and positive behavior interventions.

Early Childhood

  • The budget establishes the roll-in of voluntary 4-year-old standards-based preK programs statewide with 350 hours of instruction, free breakfast for all, licensed teachers and mixed delivery systems.
  • The expenditure is $25 million in FY 2017, $40 million in FY 2018, and $60 million in FY 2019 and expands allowable uses of long-term facilities maintenance revenue to create preK classrooms.
  • Supports the expansion of Help Me Grow with $1 million in FY 2017 only.

The budget also appropriates:

  • $2 million for full service community schools in FY 2017.
  • $12 million toward the teacher shortage crisis in FY 2017 and thereafter through the Minnesota’s Future Teachers grant program and Stepping Up for Kids program.
  • $204,000 in FY 2016 for the alternative teacher compensation revenue program with an extra $10 million for teacher development and evaluation in FY 2017 only.
  • Covers fees for eligible individuals to take the GED–$120,000 in FY 2017 only.
  • Supports improvements in special education reporting by allocating $2 million in FY 2017 to an online reporting system.
  • Offers $2.75 million in FY 2017 only for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

The Right Solution?

Large crowds of public participants were a theme this week in both Senate and House hearings. Though there were great ideas expressed, despite a surplus, again, we see that very little will be spent on education.

Representative Loon (Eden Prairie, GOP) introduced HF3679, the “teacher protection bill,” to a full room. HF3679 enforces aggregation of data on student to teacher violence, provides a fund to assist educators who are the victims of violence, and creates “need to know” provisions that inform teachers when a past perpetrator is in their classroom.

Loon stated her bill puts a “laser focus” on protecting teachers, but others spoke to why a myopic view is the essential problem. MDE as well as many other lawmakers are concerned it neglects to address broader systemic problems affecting student welfare, most especially the lack of student support staff, misconceptions of student behavior and lack of teacher diversity.

Rep Carlos Mariani (St Paul, DFL) appreciates seeing “districts called to high level of accountability for maintaining a safe workplace climate,” but is concerned about unintended consequences. Mariani‘s bill HF2944 increases teacher diversity with the same intent but different vision from Loon’s bill.

Representative Davnie called for Loon to hear Rep Halvorson’s bill to increase social workers at schools, saying “absent targeted funding, schools will continue to do what schools do: buy text books, hire teachers, run school buses.” Halvorson and many other lawmakers have bills intended to improve school climate.

Opportunities for Involvement

“Parent activism is democracy at its best.” -Senator Charles Wiger

This week marked the beginning of a series of Minnesota Department of Education-sponsored talks with the Education Commissioner on how recent changes to federal education law will be implemented across the state of Minnesota. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is our newly passed federal education law. From these discussions, work groups will be formed to zero in on topics like testing, data collection, family engagement, school climate, and others. The meetings are open to “stakeholders,” which includes parents! Work groups will convene in June and July. By October, the U.S. Department of Education will release final new regulations. In early 2017, MDE will need to be prepared to submit an ESSA state plan.

The first meeting focused on accountability, or “the process used to identify schools for improvement or recognition.” MDE staff presented the facts, focusing upon differences between our previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind, and ESSA. Commissioner Cassellius then opened the floor to both questions and ideas. She shared a few of her own, including her preference for a new system that identifies struggling schools without first ranking them in order from best to worst–a fresh perspective.

Your fresh perspective may be valuable to this process as well. Please consider attending and better yet, join a work group.

Another opportunity: each month, the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State publishes notifications of vacancies on state boards, councils and committees. Minnesotans are encouraged to apply as a public service to their state. This month there are two openings on education councils:

  • The Early Learning Council
  • The Special Education Council

Please apply–your voice matters. Applications are being accepted through April 26th.

You may apply online as well as register to receive these monthly notifications.

A Look Ahead

Both House and Senate education funding bills should be out next week. Then we’ll see who the winners of this bill lottery are!

Worth a Second Look

While focusing on teacher safety this week, many legislators and educators were talking about the need for more adults in our schools. Although the last years have brought some relief to schools, decades of underfunding have yet to be reversed and the results are apparent. For example, Minnesota Schools Rank low on Student Support.

This just in from MinnPost. Read about yet another education reform group providing $2.7 million to reform education. Their goal is to provide 30,000 new seats for students in Minneapolis. The Executive Director of Minnesota Comeback is the former ED of Charter School Partners. Check out their funders.

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.