Update for March 6, 2015: Floodgates

/ 6 March 2015 / Shawna

Bills are flowing in, fast and furious, before deadlines hit. Committees will hear their last bills in the coming weeks. This makes it especially interesting to witness what is being heard and what will never get a hearing, as this is entirely up to the committee chairs. In both the Senate and the House, the bills that garnered the most attention this week focused upon College in the Schools, student safety, teacher shortages and again, the students for whom we have not yet found a way to serve to the best of our ability.

At the Capitol

In the House

HF2 passed on a party line vote on the House floor last night, after six hours of debate. The bill requires districts to include teacher evaluations in addition to seniority when there are budget reductions that make unrequested leaves of absence, or layoffs, necessary. (To be clear, teachers in Minnesota can be fired for being ineffective. This bill pertains only to layoffs.) The bill also includes a provision that students not have an “ineffective” teacher two years in a row. Read more from our earlier Updates. Similar bills will be heard in the Senate next week. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s received.

Speaking of teachers (and many bills are), Rep. Bennett (R-Albert Lea) presented HF1170 this week that would give loan forgiveness to those who are willing to teach in areas of teacher shortage. It has bipartisan coauthors.

House Ed Finance

The following snapshot from House Ed Finance continues last week’s theme of paying attention to blind spots – students we might be overlooking.

Financial flexibility for school districts?

There was a lot of energy around HF 567 (Wills, R-Eagan) and HF 1222 (Hertaus, R-Greenfield), two bills that would allow districts more flexibility to spend money earmarked for their poorest students. Compensatory funding is extra dollars schools get from the state based upon numbers of students with reduced price or free lunch. Since research shows it’s even tougher for poor students when they are grouped together in high numbers, the formula also takes into account concentration of poverty.

Currently, 90% of compensatory funds must stay at the school of the students who qualify for it, with the intention of making sure it’s spent on those students. Wills’ bill would allow 50% of the funds to be targeted to other schools in the same district. Hertaus’ bill would give full flexibility for all the funds within a district.

Testimony was compelling, including across-the-aisle support from Rep Newton (DFL- Anoka), where a pilot project with this flexibility has improved student outcomes. A Parents United member seated with me, who is a school social worker, whispered in my ear that in her district, many non-English speaking and Latino parents don’t apply for free/reduced lunch because they either don’t know about it, don’t know how to apply or are afraid. Thus, these student populations, when poor, miss this benefit. (This was supported in testimony from a superintendent about a dual language school for English learners in his district needing support to do as well as the school where most of his comp ed funds are spent.)

Good questions were raised about accountability for spending these dollars, as well as their original intent. Some asserted that assurances are in place: districts are held to high standards by requirements such as The World’s Best Workforce law, and school boards must answer for progress or not be reelected. One thing everyone agreed on– the startling fact that Minnesota’s children are becoming poorer, and many more children qualify for aid than in years past.

A lot of miles on the road…

There are individual school districts in Minnesota that, if you traced on a map, would overlay and cover the entire metro are, from Albertville to Stillwater. HF1389 (Persell, R-Bemidji) would allocate extra dollars to six such districts, whose schools serve students sprinkled across more than 3,000 square miles. In brief, policy switched in 1997 from a formula that helped cover actual transportation costs to one that put more money on the per pupil formula for all students. This is another argument for equity instead of equality, in this case to address a unique need of students in very isolated parts of our state.

A case for deaf and blind students

Several dozen enthusiastic and visibly chatty deaf students came to hear HF1224 (Daniels, R-Fairibault) on Thursday. It’s hard to know if bills for specific schools or programs will have legs, but this hearing was an example that personal stories can make compelling testimony. It requests about $1m over two years for technology expenditures for the MN State Academies for the Deaf and Blind.

Through interpreters, the school’s technology leader and one of its teachers testified that antiquated hardware and software prevent the school from using emerging educational software for deaf and blind students, and is far subpar to the technology in school districts in their region.

The bill’s author, Rep Daniels movingly conveyed how he and his wife reluctantly transferred their deaf son to the Academy (600 miles away), when he was doing poorly and feeling very isolated at his regular high school in St. Cloud. Daniels became choked up at the end of his testimony, quite clearly surprising himself, when conveying how transformative the school was for his son, whom he said blossomed academically, socially and athletically.

No questions were raised about the school’s current appropriation or testimony given against it. Learn more about this Minnesota public school (that you might not have known existed!).

House Education Innovation Policy

This week in the House Education Innovation Policy committee, 17 bills streamed through that were either sent on to a different committee, or held over for possible inclusion in the Education Policy omnibus bill. They focused upon everything from unclaimed lottery prize money being dedicated to buy more school trust lands (HF 887), to controversial modifications of school bus driver’s licensure (HF 1164 and HF 1163).

More info on school trust lands: scroll to “This Land is Your Land”

At this point in the session, bills that have not been introduced in committee will have trouble making it upstream. By March 20, bills that do not make it out of the committee where they were introduced or referred, will die. This speaks to the power of the chair, who decides what bills will be heard in her/his committee.

Ed Policy Chair, Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) has run a tight ship, and her intent to do what she believes is best for students permeates the committee. That school districts -superintendents, administrators, school boards, parents and teachers – should maintain a high level of control of the decision-making in their district is dubbed “local control.” There is tension between local control and statewide mandates. It is clear that the level of local control given to school districts v. what the state requires is central to most of the debates this session.

The Legislature can maintain local control for districts by reducing or maintaining the number of statewide mandates on education policy and spending. Both parties seem to agree that a high level of local control is a good idea, but we will see push back when enough lawmakers feel larger principles, people or economies are at stake.

An example of a perennial local control issue is school start date; though it may be ideal to allow districts to decide their own calendars, this decision has ramifications for our 3rd largest industry, hospitality, and for student participation in the MN State Fair. Fundamentally, it is also the responsibility of the Legislature to consider the statewide, implications of their decisions, like affecting the sustainability of resorts.

The other challenge for those who believe strongly in local control is that sometimes mandates are really, really great ideas. In particular, the representatives are acquiescing a bit on local control for the benefit of underserved populations, but time will tell. This week and last, those groups included American Indian students, homeless students, dyslexic students, deaf and blind students, and neurologically diverse students (autism spectrum, traumatic brain injuries, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, for examples).

Some of the other fantastic ideas presented this week included integrated service learning opportunities, teacher mentorship, suicide prevention training, project-based learning, and specific training in special education for paraprofessionals. Companion bills for some of these were also heard in the Senate. It’s difficult to say which of the many bills that support expanding dual credit options in high schools will pass this year. However, the research demonstrating its effectiveness in helping ALL students appears to have influence in both parties.

Ideally, these decisions would ultimately be made upon what is best for students and what we can afford as a state. But what we know is that other things are at play: elections, partisan politics and the influence and power of many competing interests. This river is headed to one big body of water named the Sea of Compromise.

Editorial ahead, Shawna Hedlund: Thursday was Special Education day at the Hill. The parent and child teams, the teachers and supporters, the awful and hopeful stories, the practical, thoughtful solutions, were absolutely stunning.

Over In the Senate

Money, Perspective and Good Intentions

On Tuesday, ISAIAH, a coalition of faith-based organizations working for racial and economic justice was asked to present their ideas for pathways to Education Equity to the Senate Education Committee. ISAIAH’s three pillars of education equity include racial equity in our schools at all levels; sustainable, equitable and adequate funding; and discipline, not demonization. Their suggestions to the committee included to involve parent voices at the table, to reduce high stakes testing and to reconsider zero-tolerance discipline policies.

Minneapolis parent Greg King remarked, “There is a gap of voices” and encouraged the committee always to think of the impact on education when looking at other bills. Senator Torres-Ray (DFL-Minneapolis) asked of her Senate colleagues, “Is what we are spending now doing what it’s intended to do? There will always be a divide between those who say we have enough and those who say we don’t.” She then addressed the Isaiah group stating, “There is a lot of money and a lot of good intention.” This sums of the session thus far very well!

Editorial ahead, Heidi Huelster: It always gives me pause when a group of people, as Senator Wiger stated, “are walking the talk.” It’s even better when a room of Senators listens to what they have to say.

“When the bum is numb, the mind is dumb.”

While I really wish I could say that was my quote, I must credit a teacher expressing how recess helps students learn, pay attention and develop socially and emotionally. Teachers and parents, after all, see first hand the difference unstructured play can make to a child’s day. Recess in Minnesota has not only been getting shorter, but has become something withheld for disciplinary or academic reasons.

On Wednesday, Senator Torres-Ray (DFL-Minneapolis) introduced SF553 that would require school Districts to adopt policy on recess for elementary school students and post recess time requirements on their websites. There wasn’t a lot of opposition, but the question was raised that with so much accountability, schools need flexibility to meet their needs.

Editorial ahead, Heidi Huelster: What’s most impressive is that parents are the driving force behind SF553 being heard today at the Senate Education committee. It is a perfect example of what Parents United for Public Schools tries to achieve in its mission: “Helping parents have a voice at the places where school policy and funding decisions are made.”

Can’t get enough of this? Check out this short paper, The Recess Debate by Anthony D. Pellegrini, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota.

An open invitation to you

We invite you to join any one of us policy fellows at the Capitol. At the end of every bill, the committee chairs invite any support or concern to be heard from the audience. That may include you: you have valuable opinions, and we are here to help you exercise your voice. Or you need not say a word! Come sit, listen, watch and learn. Just know you have a seat at the education policy table.

Bill Introductions

Every bill introduced in one body does not have to have a companion in the other house. However, in order for a bill to become a law it must be approved by both bodies and signed by the Governor. This system is not as tidy as it sounds, however. Sometimes provisions from a bill that does not pass both bodies can still end up in the Omnibus Education Policy or Finance bill and become law.

2015 House Education Bill Introductions

2015 Senate Education Bill Introductions

Bills to Watch…

HF1217 (Davnie-DFL Minneapolis) SF995 (Clausen Apple Valley) Both bills support increased opportunities for High School students to participate in college-credit courses.

HF332 (Runbeck –R Circle Pines) Childhood literacy provisions modified; dyslexia defined.

HF1237 (Christensen R-Burnsville) SF1002 (Hoffman DFL-Champlin) Paraprofessionals required to receive training in specific disabilities for working with students with special needs.

SF 961 (Jensen- DFL Owatonna) Agricultural educator grant program establishment and appropriation.

HF475 (Quam – R Byron) Sponsors agriculture education community experts allowed.

A Look Ahead to March 9-13

The Governor’s Policy Bill will be introduced next week!

In the Senate, SF1002 (Hoffman- DFLChamplin): All students with disabilities are provided instruction and services appropriate to their needs.

SF97 (Bonoff DFL-Minnetonka) and SF473 (Pratt-R Prior Lake) are married to HF2 (Loon R-Eden Prairie) and address teacher seniority modification and licensure clarification.

In the House, HF1392 (Bennett-R Albert Lea), reduces the number of required state tests. HF1220 (Kresha R-Little Falls) early learning scholarship parameters clarified and money appropriated. HF1485 (Erickson- R Princeton) allows charter schools to give enrollment preference to children who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.HF719 (Loon- R Eden Prairie) adds money to the per pupil formula.

In a press conference this week, Senate Republicans introduced a bill that would divide Minneapolis into 6 smaller Districts. This faces odds.

Worth a Second Look: Out of the Mouths of Babes

Editorial comment, Shawna Hedlund: Last night I watched an hour of the debate on HF 2 with my 10 year-old son. I summarized as it went along; “This part of the law means teacher lay-offs are based upon who is a good teacher instead of who has been a teacher the longest.” His response; “Well my teacher last year was great for me but not everyone in my class. How do they know whose ‘good?’” “It’s based on 3 things–their students’ test scores, evaluation by other educators, and student engagement.” “You mean my tests will decide if my teacher keeps her job?” “That’s just part of it.” “What if I have a bad day?” His little brother has dyslexia and does not do well on tests. “They picked that teacher for [my brother] because she is awesome but what if she has lots of kids like him?” I couldn’t help but think, perhaps we should start by answering all of his questions.

Register your youth! The Minnesota Youth Council is sponsoring Youth Day at the Capitol this Friday, March 13th from 2-6pm. The council has written letters to Legislators about education bills that were significant to them:

SF5 (education pipeline) (Senator Bonoff)

SF76 (funding for school maintenance) (Senator Dahle)

HF2 (last in first out) (Representative Loon)

What Can I do?

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!

Before You Visit Today is a helpful resource with restoration updates, parking information, accessibility.

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 for a legislative process often oblique to the public.