Update for February 27, 2015—Headlights and Blindspots  

/ 27 February 2015 / Shawna

 On this week’s drive in Minnesota, certain things continue to appear in the headlights. Post-secondary options for high school students, technical opportunities, early learning, and money on the per pupil formula are among the issues we see in the road. In the rearview mirror, the data show that children in Minnesota are doing better than you may have thought. But in the blind spot, we find that we have not been paying close enough attention to some of our kids, including our American Indian students and students who have dyslexia. Keep reading.


Don’t spend it yet! The February forecast brought good news for Minnesota. Spending is down and revenue is up! Instead of the $1 billion surplus, the state is now predicting a $1.869 billion in surplus funds. While this is terrific news, we need to remind ourselves that Minnesota is in an unusual situation. We add inflation when predicting revenue, but not expenditures. When the billion dollar surplus was announced in the November forecast, it became clear that $900 million of those dollars were needed to meet current expenses alone. So let’s not run out and spend this yet!

Measurable Improvements In very big news, Minnesota made notable gains with students. Commissioner Cassellius announced improvements in high school graduation rates: 81% up from 79.9%. More impressive were gains made by minority students. Since 2013, Hispanic graduation rates rose 4%; African American rates are up 3%; English Learners are up 4%; students on free/reduced lunch are up 2%. Grad rate increases were not up for American Indian students, and actually fell in some parts of the state, a fact the commissioner and legislators discussed at length and agree needs addressing. Even with this good news, the goal of a 90% graduation rate overall by 2020 remains a challenge.

Also significant are reductions in achievement gaps since 2011:

  • Gaps between white students and African American students narrowed 8 points
  • Gaps between white students and Hispanic students narrowed 9.6%
  • Gaps between Native English speakers and English learners narrowed 10 points
  • Gaps between affluent students and students on free/reduced lunch narrowed 7% 

At the Capitol

In the House

Perhaps one of the most sobering moments in House Education Policy Innovation this week was when, by a roll-call vote, the bill for universal preschool (HF46E. Murphy, DFL) was tabled in committee rather than advancing to the Ed Finance committee. In Rep. Murphy’s words, “I’m stunned.” Read more about the early childhood debate in the House.

Postsecondary enrollment options generally garnered bipartisan support. We will be hearing more about these bills in the weeks to come.

Education tax credits caused a bit of animated honking and braking, however. Rep. Knoblach is still attempting to de-classify his tax credit/private school tuition support bill (HF798) as a “voucher system.”

The show was completely stolen in the House by some unusual participants: kids. They flooded committee hearing rooms with balloons on their wrists for Voices of Dyslexia Day on the Hill. The ones beyond balloon age spoke eloquently of their struggles in learning with dyslexia (see more below).

Two-dozen high school students came to support a bill to support after-school programs (HF 947 Kresha—R, Little Falls). Central High School senior, Padah Vang, rose to her feet and requested to testify on her empowering experience in an after school youth leadership program. She stated, “I do not need a script or notes because this is heartfelt.” As a “1st generation, low-income student,” she shared, “the group cultivated my voice” and strengthened her “social and emotional intelligence.” She spoke to lessons in vulnerability and communication and went so far as to say that it improved her relationship with her parents, allowed her to speak up in school, and informed her formal education. In our opinion, she was the most well spoken person at the Capitol this week. 

House Education Finance and Senate Education heard the same bills introduced last week in House Education Innovation Policy committee on education tax credits for families. These bills offer tax credits (not just deductions, already in place) for private school tuition and preschool expenses for low-income families. In House Finance, we heard push back from minority members and education organizations. As Schools for Equity in Education testified, education tax credits have been contentious since the 1990’s and “it remains a line in the sand today.” Constitutionality and adjustments to inflation were the primary sticking points. All bills moved on to the tax committee.

“Your School–Your Needs”

Wednesday, the Senate GOP held a press conference to outline their proposal for K-12 funding. Chief Author, Senator Nienow (R-Cambridge) opened, “The Democrats’ proposal has fallen flat, short and is less smart.” They describe their proposal as a “burst of funding directly into the classrooms.” When asked how the Senators knew where it would be spent, Nienow explained they presume the money would be spent in classrooms based upon what they hear from stakeholders in their districts.

The key difference between their proposal and Governor Dayton’s is a suggested 3% increase in annual per pupil funding as opposed to 1%. They propose allocating this to districts “without any new mandates or strings attached.” This means $175 per pupil for 2016 and an additional $180 per pupil in 2017 for “basic needs revenue.” This funding would be equal for all students, regardless of student need–poverty, special education, or English language learner status. In Sen. Nienow’s words, “the dollar amount given to each student is the same, regardless of anything—because that’s equity.”

We disagree. As parents, we know that when one child needs a coat, that doesn’t mean we buy coats for all of our children. One may need mittens, one boots and the other may have a coat that still fits from last year! Equity means giving each child what they need.

Over in the Senate

Early Tuesday morning, the Senate Education committee confirmed Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius for another term. Senators praised her accomplishments in establishing the Office of Early Learning, implementing Minnesota’s new accountability system, the Multiple Measurements Rating System (MMR) and creating Regional Centers of Excellence. Note: only the Senate can confirm gubernatorial appointees, and then only if they choose to bring a request for confirmation forward.  

A call for inflation? Senator Hoffman (DFL-Champlin) and Senator Clausen (DFL-Apple Valley) proposed SF163 and SF541. These bills increase the per pupil formula by 4% in 2016 and 4% in 2017. Because Minnesota’s per pupil formula currently is not tied to inflation, the dollars allotted each student have lagged behind real costs, and districts have been forced to make cuts and increase levies to provide the same opportunities to kids as years pass. Fifteen testifiers, including superintendents, teachers, school business officers and parents, provided persuasive testimony on the need for these bills. This increase is much larger than the Governor’s proposed 1%. Unlike the Senate Minority proposal, this bill keeps the same mechanism for spending as in current law. Everyone seems to agree that a formula increase is needed – it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. Read more about all of the bills heard that propose money on the formula.

More on the Corps: The Senate also heard a compelling Senator Kent (DFL Woodbury) present SF607, requesting $10 million over the biennium toward Minnesota’s very successful Reading Corps program. We reported on this when its companion was heard earlier in the session in Education Finance. Parents United is a big fan of MN Reading (and Math!) Corps and wrote this piece about their work last year.

Shining a Light on Invisible Children

American Indian Students: Both the House and Senate hearing rooms were packed with members from all 11 Tribal Nations to hear the Minnesota Department of Educations (MDE) present its Report on American Indian Education in Minnesota. Commissioner Cassellius asserted, “The current state of Indian education in unacceptable, and we are here today to make sure we have equitable education for all our students.” MDE and the Indian Education working group have spent the last 4 years studying and developing their recommendations to better serve Minnesota’s 20,000 American Indian children in public schools and the 800 students served by four tribal schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education. American Indian students have the lowest graduation rates in Minnesota (though they’ve made an 8-point gain since 2011) and the highest drop out rate and achievement gap of any minority group.

The recommendations include investing in early education and adding to the per pupil formula for students at tribal schools, who currently receive half the average dollar amount as other students in Minnesota ($5,000, including both state and federal funding, compared to a state average of $10,000). We would like to better understand why this discrepancy exists! Recommendations would cost Minnesota around 2.2 million a year.

Voices of Dyslexia Day on the Hill: The Senate Education committee room and adjacent hallway was full of impassioned parents and kids for Voices of Dyslexia Day on the Hill and the hearing for companion bill: SF271 (Chamberlain-R, White Bear Lake). The most moving testimony was from kids who struggled their way through school because they didn’t have a diagnosis, support within their school, or access to outside tutoring.

A highlight of the afternoon’s rally was when Senator Foung Hawj named himself as a “face of dyslexia,” vulnerably speaking to parents and kids about his struggles in school. Though a tax credit, the reading credit is both assignable and refundable, meaning even low-income families who have no tax liability can use the credit to offset the cost of tutoring or other services. Rep. Runbeck’s bill HF359 is a mechanism to support children with dyslexia whose specific learning needs are not being met in public schools. Will it shoulder the full cost? No. Will it change schools? No. But this effort is also underway. Will it help raise awareness and help many families? Definitely.

Bill Introductions

Thousands of bills are introduced each session. Each week in this section you will be able to read through newly introduced bills that deal with education. No bill can be heard in committee that has not first been introduced on the floor of the House or the Senate, so unless it is on this list, you won’t see it in committee. Conversely, the chair of each committee is charged with deciding which bills will be heard. Reading through these bills gives us a better understanding of what our elected leaders are thinking.

2015 House Education Bill Introductions

2015 Senate Education Bill Introductions

Bills to watch 

House Ed Finance heard HF663 (Baker, R-Willmar) today that would add equity revenue for many districts who don’t yet receive it. The idea is to add funds to districts with low property wealth. This bill made it into the conference committee last session but according to former chair Marquart it died at the last minute. There is bipartisan interest, and we predict there will be continued interest in it later in the session.

HF2 (Loon, R-Eden Prairie) Relates to clarifying conditions for teacher licensure and employment. The companion bill is SF473 (Pratt, R-Prior Lake)

HF46 (Murphy,E., DFL-St. Paul) Universal pre-K program. Its companion bill in the Senate is SF6 (Hoffman, DFL-Champlin)

SF298 (Stumpf, DFL-Plummer) Addresses temporary teaching licensure extensions

SF271 (Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes) and HF359 (Runbeck, R-Circle Pines) are dyslexia tax credits

SF163 (Hoffman-DFL Champlin) and SF541(Clausen-DFL Apple Valley) are both requests to the per pupil unit on the formula from 1% to 3% in 2016 and 3% in 2017

SF473 (Bonoff-DFL Minnetonka) is the ULA bill or unrequested leave of absence. It’s “married” to HF2

A look ahead

Next week, the Senate Education Committee will hear:

SF606 (Cohen DFL-St. Paul) Early learning scholarships program

SF630 (Clausen DFL-Apple Valley) Homeless children early educational services eligibility authorization

SF553 (Torres-Ray DFL-Minneapolis) Recess policy for elementary school students requirement

HF1233 (Christensen R-Burnsville) Student discipline provisions modified—will be heard in House Education Innovation Policy

HF2 likely to be heard for a vote on the floor Thursday: Teacher licensure and employment conditions clarified; alternative teacher licensure amended; teacher licensure reciprocity with adjoining states provided; license via portfolio, exemption for technical education instructors, teachers’ unrequested leaves of absence and teaching assignments decisions, and teacher examination requirements clarified; and placing students with ineffective teachers prohibited.

Worth a second look

The Schott Foundation maintains reduction of standardized testing as one of their key issues. “Standards-based reform, and the high-stakes testing that goes with it, has been our nation’s dominant education policy in recent decades. But this approach has done nothing to address the deep inequities in access to educational opportunity, particularly for low-income students and students of color. By focusing solely on the achievement gap, our nation has failed to address the opportunity gap that creates it.”
Learn more >

This Star Tribune article highlighted House File 2. The author states that thousands of MN teachers are laid off every year whose jobs would be protected by HF 2’s new lay-off provisions. The data used, we believe, was from the biannual Teacher Supply and Demand Report from MDE for the Legislature that reported “staff reductions.” However, this number includes probationary teachers who, by statute, lose their jobs every spring and are usually hired back. We believe the number is closer to less than 100 teachers per year. In other words, changing lay off provisions to emphasize teacher evaluation over teacher seniority will save very few hard working, high quality teachers their jobs because their jobs are simply not at high risk.

Fun video about federal education reform: Changing Education Paradigms

What Can I do?

Do you see a bill that interests you? Do you have a cause you feel strongly about? Legislators sometimes mistakenly believe residents would show up if they cared deeply about an issue. We know sometimes we just don’t know what to do or where to go or how to get involved. Call us. We will help you get involved.

Check out At the Capitol, where we will keep you updated on committees, bills and opportunities to get involved at the Capitol this session. The Capitol is under construction!

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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. Truth be told, Parents United is a translator of complex terms and policy implications, as well as a navigator fora legislative process often oblique to the public.