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From pre-K to school discipline: a look at the education initiatives that survived Minnesota’s 2016 legislative session

While the funding included in the budget bill won’t solve the state’s most prominent education issues, it did signal lawmakers’ priorities going forward.

Governor Dayton visiting with students at Kaposia Education Center in South St. Paul on March 31.
Office of the Governor

Like a high school student frantically cramming for a final — despite having vowed to be more proactive this time around — state lawmakers did manage to hash out some education initiatives during the 2016 legislative session.

As part of the supplemental budget bill, the state will be spending $79 million toward pre-K-12 programs, allocating $24 million out of the state’s $900 million surplus and appropriating an additional $55 million in funding for education priorities.

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The bill, signed by Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday afternoon, includes a wide range of education items, ranging from $25 million for the voluntary preschool program Dayton has long championed to a one-time allocation of $500,000 to the Eden Prairie school district (represented by Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee) to support things like college and career readiness, counseling, and tutoring programs.

While the money passed this year won’t solve the state’s longstanding education issues — like the teacher shortage — many of the initiatives included in the bill drew bipartisan support.

From data policy changes to additional funding for student support services, here’s a closer look at some of the major education items that got done during the 2016 session:

Dayton’s pre-K program

Dayton secured $25 million — the largest single allocation for education this year — to expand voluntary pre-kindergarten opportunities for 4-year-olds during the 2016-17 school year. Funding for the program will continue with $55 million dedicated through the 2018-19 biennium.

This funding will be divvied up among four categories of schools: Twin Cities district schools; greater metro area district schools; greater and rural Minnesota district schools; and charter schools. Providers that meet criteria outlined in statute and apply by July 1 will be given priority based on an area’s poverty levels and the scarcity of programs rated as three- and four stars by Parent Aware, the state-operated online rating tool. Under this statute, schools can opt to contract with a charter school, Head Start program, child-care center, community-based organization or licensed family child care program in their area to provide these early learning services.

While early-learning issues have generally received bipartisan support, many would have liked to see funding stretched further to cover children under the age of 4, who stand to benefit even more from early interventions. 

Dayton would like to have seen another stipulation added to this funding: that pre-K teachers be licensed. Yet while that standard might help elevate the professional status of early childhood educators, it has also put some on edge. The reason: In contrast to a predominately white teacher body, 87 percent of Parent Aware-rated early learning and child-care establishments in Minneapolis are led by providers of color, with 56 percent being multilingual. The numbers look similar for St. Paul. Unless these providers are given equal pathways to licensure, some worry that a licensure requirement could prove to be a disservice to youth who benefit from interacting with early childhood educators who are reflective of their own cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Also, expect to see advocacy groups continue to push for earlier-childhood-learning funding next session, along with a continuation of the debate over universal pre-K versus an early-learning scholarship model that would target the most at-risk youth.

Student support services

The second largest allocation, $12.1 million in one-time funding, will begin to address the severe shortage of school counselors along with other student support professionals: nurses, psychologists, social workers and chemical-dependency counselors.

State Sen. Susan Kent
State Sen. Susan Kent

School counselors from across the state drove to St. Paul to testify on the crisis schools are facing because of the shortage. On average, there’s only one counselor for every 792 students in Minnesota, a ratio that has placed the state at the bottom of the barrel, nationwide, for more than a decade.

Among other things, counselors say, the shortage means not all students are getting the guidance they need for addressing mental health issues, staying on track to graduate, exploring college and career options, and more. And while $12.1 million certainly won’t come anywhere close to resolving the issue, it does mean that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reached a point where they see the issue as a priority.

The initiative, which was spearheaded by Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, will award funding via six-year matching grants reviewed by the commissioner of education. For the first four years, schools must agree to match the grant dollar-for-dollar, with that match increasing to $3 for every state dollar awarded in years five and six.

In a related policy provision adopted this session, all teachers are now required to undergo at least one hour of suicide-prevention training when it comes time to renew their license. Also, the commissioner of education has been tasked with providing contact information for crisis response teams — to help schools respond immediately to things like a student death or suicide — and ensuring these teams are developed in regions where they currently don’t exist.

Data disaggregation

Thanks to another new policy, Minnesota is positioned to be a national leader in using more granular student data to better inform education policies and practices.

While it may take a few years to capture meaningful insights from the new data points, Sen. Kent’s bill has paved the way for underrepresented student groups and minority subsets, like the Karen and Somalis, that are currently lumped into one of five generic racial or ethnic umbrellas: Native American, African American, Asian American, Hispanic American and White American.

Moving forward, the Minnesota Department of Education must disaggregate and publish student data on measures like graduation rates and outcomes from standard state assessments, by race, ethnicity, refugee status, home language, foster care status and more.

New testing policies

In arguably one of the biggest head-turners, all students will now be administered a mandatory 50-question civics test. These questions will be pulled from the U.S. citizenship test, and students must answer 30 correctly in order to pass.

Schools can choose to incorporate the test into their social studies curriculum, but failure to pass the civics test cannot prevent a student from acquiring his or her high school diploma. So the repercussions of failing the new mandatory test are, essentially, nonexistent (as long the test isn’t the determining factor for a student to pass a social studies course students need to graduate).

While the intent may have been to instill a greater level of civic awareness in students, it’s yet another test that teachers need to carve out time to administer. It’s also apt to put many immigrant families on the defensive during an election year when Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has already begun creating tensions at the school level. 

Whatever your feelings on the civics test, a few other new testing policies are sure to please students and parents. In an effort to enhance transparency, districts must now publish a comprehensive calendar of standardized tests online, along with the rationale for giving the test and whether it’s a local option or required by state or federal law. Additionally, the state Department of Education must publish an opt-out form for parents that lays out any repercussions and gives them the option to provide feedback.

With regard to the ACT and SAT, students will be taking one during the school day, at no cost. If their preferred test is not administered at their school, they can opt to take it elsewhere and be reimbursed by their district.

Teacher licensure

In response to a legislative audit report that highlighted a number of inefficiencies within the state’s teacher licensure process, a 12-member legislative study group will meet this summer to further discuss ways to best streamline the licensure process.

In the interim, a few policy changes were approved that add clarity to how an out-of-state teacher can acquire a Minnesota teaching license without having to wade through months of paperwork and uncertainty.

The group is tasked with making recommendations to the legislature by Feb. 1, 2017, including how to restructure the state’s teacher licensure system so it’s consolidated under one state entity, or at least clarify which entities are in charge of which tasks. More than 20 different advocacy and state groups will be invited to share their input with the legislative study group this summer.

The teacher licensure audit was prompted, in part, by the need to better address the state’s teacher shortage. Not only are districts struggling to fill teaching positions in specialities like special education, English language learners and math, but also to better address the disconnect between the predominately white teacher body that’s educating an increasingly diverse student body.

To further address the teacher shortage, legislators dedicated seed funding to a number of initiatives, including $2.8 million for grants for teachers in in-demand fields; $2 million for teacher loan forgiveness; and $1.5 million for teacher preparation programs like Minneapolis’ Grow Your Own.

Student discipline

At the district level, student discipline and school safety have become such hot-button topics that school administrators and board members rarely confront the issues head on, at least publicly. That’s not the case when it comes to the Legislature.

This session, it seemed legislators were jumping at the chance to attach their name to the issue, however wide-ranging their solutions may have been. Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, presented a bill that would require school boards to expel students who assault teachers. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, proposed a more nuanced protocol that involved behavior interventions and supports. Even after Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, proposed a student discipline working group to delve deeper into all options, Rep. Jenifer Loon introduced and passed a bill that will allow teachers to remove students from class for disruptive behavior and ensure teachers are notified when a student with a history of violence is placed in their classroom. 

As things shook out, most suggestions were pushed off onto the student discipline working group that will meet over the summer to conduct an in-depth review of student discipline issues — including racial disparities in discipline, the role of school resource officers and teacher safety — and report back to the Legislature with recommendations by Feb. 1.

Representatives from 21 groups have been selected to serve on the working group, yet not everyone’s satisfied with the composition of the group. Some would have liked to see it include more student voices and input from communities of color. Regardless, the recommendations the group brings forth are likely to get mulled over quite a bit by legislators — and the public — next session.

The student discipline debate may get even more contentious before any new policies are passed, but at least one related item passed this year with ease: $4.5 million in safety-training funding for intermediate school district staff, who work with some of our state’s most explosive, at-risk youth.