It is easy to find fault with the recent state budget and policy bill as it relates to K-12 schools. It is a bit harder to find the positive gains, but there are several.
The biggest point of contention on the part of school superintendents comes from the big budget framework in which the K-12 state aid shift was a core part of the agreement. Quoting one superintendent: “they have gone from ‘using’ to ‘abusing’ the finances of school districts.”
Not only will school districts need to cover the cost of borrowing huge sums of money to survive, the shift simply puts off the state’s budget challenge for two more years, at which time a similar budget crisis will occur. Further, any future effort to repay this massive borrowing will be interpreted as a new investment in education rather than a simple repayment of a loan.
Once we move beyond the angst of the state aid shift, we need to consider what the K-12 education bill contained. From a management perspective there is some positive news both in what the bill offers and what it left out. The potentially positive changes include:
1. A further study of the appropriate uses of integration aid.
While the present integration aid continues for two more years, even those leading districts with the most to lose if this funding is discontinued know that it is time to restudy this issue and the ways that it is addressed. There is no better person to lead this discussion than Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who has spent her whole career fighting for equity.
An initial move toward the evaluation of the professional staffs of schools with the hope that a plan will emerge that is well thought out and helpful. The system of evaluation of professional staff is very checkered across the state, with pockets of excellence and places where it doesn’t exist at all. Beginning a state-led process of evaluating principals and developing a teacher process with input from all stakeholders is a step in a positive direction.
2. A set of mandate reductions or changes that will allow school districts to survive in very difficult financial times.
Some of these mandate changes will allow greater flexibility on how to deploy the staffs of schools and others will allow some savings of money that will allow districts to place more resources directly in contact with students.
3. A renewed emphasis on literacy success for our youngest learners.
Rather than punishing students who aren’t proficient readers by grade three, the new rules will emphasize interventions and parent involvement at the earliest ages to a greater degree and will provide financial incentives to schools and staff as more students are successful.
4. An expansion of encouragement for students to embrace post-secondary education.
Minnesota has long allowed access to post-secondary programs for high-school students. While this PSEO program creates management challenges, the result has encouraged students to participate in more advanced learning classes. A scholarship program for students completing high school early will encourage more students, and their parents, to experience the benefits of continued education.
5. Some small amount of additional funding for schools.
This amount at $50/pupil unit per year and some growth of special education funding, however small is certainly better than a nominal cut in funding.
6. Finally, the K-12 bill did not include several poorly-thought-out ideas such as a voucher system in our largest districts, an “A thru F” school grading system, and the original version of a teacher evaluation system. Each would have created a punishing environment for the very schools attempting to educate the students living in the deepest poverty and would accelerate the flight of great teachers from those schools.
As we consider each of these changes, it is incumbent on school leaders to work together with their professional staffs, unions and parents. Even as we adjust to state policy changes, we need to be a team working together in the best interests of our students. It is in everyone’s best interest to make the enacted policy changes become positive factors in the education of Minnesota’s children.
Charlie Kyte, PhD, is the soon-to-retire executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. This article was originally published as a guest commentary on the website of Minnesota 2020,a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul.