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From early ed to school safety: A look at the education issues Minnesota lawmakers are set to tackle in 2019

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
From a Dec. 20 press conference, left to right: Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan; Mary Cathryn Ricker, incoming education commissioner; Dennis Olson, incoming higher education commissioner; Gov-elect Tim Walz; and Paul Schnell, incoming corrections commissioner.

Heading into the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers will be grappling with a number of pressing education issues — everything from school safety and student mental health to school funding and early childhood education.

The state already carves out the largest portion of its general fund budget to support K-12 education, which accounts for over 40 percent of state spending. But with a projected $1.5 billion surplus heading into a budget-setting session, many lawmakers are entertaining requests to invest more in schools and education-related services.

Given Gov.-elect Tim Walz’s former experience teaching in the public school system and the interest he’s expressed in addressing school funding inequities and the need to build up more comprehensive student supports at schools, there’s good reason to believe public school funding will continue to be a priority.

He recently appointed another educator to serve as the incoming state education commissioner: Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and member of the governing board of the state teachers union, Education Minnesota.

This pick may very well hint at Walz’s education agenda for the upcoming session and the education-related debates that may ensue. That’s because Education Minnesota has a strong lobbying presence at the Capitol every year — often in favor of policies and budget priorities that put it at odds with Republican lawmakers, who hold the majority in the Minnesota Senate.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
The chair of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, comes from a teaching background as well — a shared experience that she hopes will help move education items forward this session.

“I always think that’s a good starting place,” she said, so long as the focus stays on what’s best for students. “There may be differences in how we get there. I hope they’re all research, data-driven decisions. I think they will be.”

One of her counterparts, Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, incoming chair of the House Education Finance Committee,  has voiced a similar appetite for working in a bipartisan fashion to set the education budget this year. 

“The kids in Republican districts deserve a world-class education, as do the kids in Democratic districts,” he said.

Safety and mental health

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, school safety and student mental health quickly became a hallmark of the last legislative session. Lawmakers of both parties crafted proposals seeking to boost funding for everything from physical security enhancements for school buildings to police officers at schools and mental health services provided in schools.

However, despite the bipartisan urgency voiced around addressing school security, many of these items got tangled up in end-of-session politics and never came to fruition.

The Legislature did manage to pass $25 million for physical safety improvements for school buildings — things like bullet-proof glass and security cameras — in the bonding bill. But even that amount came up incredibly short of the demand exhibited by schools that applied for a portion of that funding.

Nelson says she’ll be looking to revive her Safe and Secure Schools Act, which the Minnesota Senate passed in a supplemental budget bill last year. It sought to provide funding for “hardening of the target” through building security features, as well as provide funding for additional mental health supports in schools, school resource officers, or any other personnel schools deemed necessary at the local level.

“I know, in the Senate, that’s going to be one of our top priorities, early out of the gate,” she said.

 

winkler

State Rep. Ryan Winkler

The incoming Majority Leader in the House, Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, says advancing funding for full-service community schools is a priority this session. This school model includes placing a greater emphasis on mental health services for students, who can’t always afford to access these services on their own outside of the school. This may mean creating “special funding categories” to ensure that state dollars that go to schools actually end up paying for additional student support services, he said.

“The need for counselors and mental health support in schools is not necessarily required or seen in the general funding formula. So we will be looking at addressing those needs as well,” he said.

Davnie says there’s a huge appetite among legislators, particularly the newcomers, to make the student well-being component of the school safety push a priority this session. To achieve this, he plans to take a very intentional approach, rather than granting schools full discretion on which safety measures to invest in.

“I prefer the dedicated dollars for school-linked mental health so that we get the services that everyone knows we need more of in the schools in the schools,” he said. “I think if those schools that want to move forward on full-service community schools identify that mental health is one of their priorities, that provides some resources for them to achieve that.”

School funding

As school districts across the state increasingly turn to voter-approved referendums to avoid layoffs or slashing into programming, school leaders have long been advocating for a more aggressive increase in the state’s basic education funding formula, from which dollars are allocated on a per-pupil basis.

While Winkler says lawmakers will continue to support schools’ autonomy in choosing how, exactly, to spend the state dollars they receive, based upon the local needs that they identify, he says there’s a real need for lawmakers to take a closer look at special education costs.

“When we see the rise of special education needs and more diagnoses of kids with special needs, I think looking at the high impact of special education costs on districts — which isn’t necessarily reflected in the funding formula —  that’s important,” he said.

He’s referring to the fact that many districts are forced to divert funding from their own general fund to cover the costs of providing special education services to their students. These services are federally mandated — as many agree they should be. Yet the federal government has long ignored its promise to cover 40 percent of these costs, leaving school districts on the hook to fill the gap.

 

davnie portrait

State Rep. Jim Davnie

Davnie says his committee aligns with Walz in wanting to “fully fund K-12 education.” Gov. Mark Dayton stood by his promise to increase K-12 funding every year of his administration, but “there’s still an awful lot of schools that are looking at cuts and layoffs and trimming programs,” Davnie said.

He wants to re-examine the school funding formula and process so that schools can better plan for the upcoming year. It’s something he’s hopeful that incoming House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, will help iron out.

“Hortman has been clear that she wants to look at some legislative process issues: How do we be more transparent? How do we make it easier for people to follow the process? How do we have a more orderly process? How do we actually finish on time, in an orderly fashion?” he said.

Nelson says she’s most interested in looking at adding state funding to the per-pupil formula, which offers schools the most flexibility — whether that means they use those funds to help cover special education costs or fund pre-K programming.

But she cautions that any increases to the per-pupil formula must be sustainable, because “it’s not helpful to our schools, our kids, if we give them funding one year and take it away the next.”

Early education

In the House, Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, chairs the Early Childhood Finance and Policy Committee. But given the close interplay between the K-12 system and early education, Davnie will be keeping a close eye on how Walz and his administration seek to expand upon Dayton’s universal pre-K initiative.

“We’ve been sort of building down from the K-12 system,” Davnie said. “But I know that Rep. Pinto’s emphasis in his work to date has been on birth to 3-year-olds. And there’s growing voices in the early education advocacy community saying we get even better return on our investment if you look at the youngest possible ages. I think that’ll be an interesting discussion.”

 

State Rep. Dave Pinto

State Rep. Dave Pinto

Nelson favors a more targeted approach to allocating state dollars toward early learning, to ensure that students in need are identified and prioritized.

“As I’m talking with school officials from across the state, in our K-12 systems, the resources are already a bit thin. So we want to be careful about suddenly adding a whole nother grade of 4-year-olds, as opposed to targeting those resources to kids in need,” she said.

Given the findings of Early Childhood Programs audit presented by the state Office of the Legislative Auditor last year — which largely concluded that the early ed landscape is muddled by a mess of funding streams — Nelson says she’ll be seeking greater reassurance that the dollars the state invests in early learning programs are actually producing results.

Likewise, Winkler says efforts are under way to “create a seamless experience for families, rather than making them navigate the bureaucratic maze that we’ve created over time.”

For starters, he says, they’ve created an early learning and child care subcommittee, which hasn’t existed for the last four years. It’s a division of both health and human services and K-12, since early learning coexists with early child care.

In terms of weighing in on the universal versus targeted pre-K debate, Winkler says the biggest challenge with early learning is that there simply isn’t enough money in the system to serve all of the kids who need it.

“Our goal is to find a comprehensive approach that will fund child care and access to early learning for all kids — and do so in a way that brings all of the advocacy groups and their preferences together and fighting for a bigger budget target, rather than fighting against each other for a bigger piece of a stagnant or fixed pie,” he said.  

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 02:45 pm.

    Public education has been a disaster for many years and is only getting worse. Throwing more moneu at it isn’t the answer. Far too many admin people getting far too much money. A curriculum that doesn’t really teach the basics and leaves kids graduating with a less than acceptable education. Here are some suggestions:
    1. Scrap common core and all these “pc/green” classes and go back to teaching the basics (reading, writing, math, science, history, economics).
    2. Bring back Home Ec type classes to teach kids how to deal with real life issues like handling money (checking accounts, credit card debt, loans and interest, how to cook, sew, clean etc).
    3. Reduce class sizes or teach based on skills not grade. If a 5th grader is only at a 3rd grade math level, get him/her in an appropriate math class instead of trying to jump up to 5th grade math. Montessori schools do this.
    4. Remove the hurdles for homeschooling. If my neighbor is good at teaching, I shouldn’t have to join a co-op and jump thru all these hoops to have him/her teach my kids. Same goes if I want to teach my neighbor’s kids.
    5. Teachers union needs to go away. Too many bad teachers that can’t be fired. Too many teachers paid based on union contracts instead of their results in the classroom.

    Those should be good places to start. The US is falling way behind other nations even though we spend a fortune on education.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/03/2019 - 02:56 pm.

    Talk is cheap – and plentiful – before the session even begins. Let’s see what happens, and from both sides of the aisle, once there’s work to be done officially.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/03/2019 - 03:31 pm.

    Since I’m no longer footing any of the bill, I encourage the MN leg, and their AFT/Dept of Ed Boss to keep spending until even they cannot deny the schools are “fully funded”; really pour cash in.

    That way we can use MN as (another) case study in proving that it ain’t a lack of money that makes the public system a reliable failure.

    So by all means; full speed ahead y’all!

  4. Submitted by Greg Smith on 01/03/2019 - 03:33 pm.

    Would like to see education for use on students, instead of the educational system

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/03/2019 - 03:43 pm.

    Let me guess -“we need to spend more money on education?”

    Of course, this trickle down education monopoly is one of the major funding sources of the DFL establishment.

    Let us consider comprehensive education reform – let us fund kids!

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 01/03/2019 - 10:25 pm.

    Our quality of life is a direct result of our willingness to spend generously to educate our children. The biggest beneficiaries are Minnesota businesses who have a bright and hard working work force. This also explains our nation leading voting rates and the extremely high levels of volunteerism, as students learn to work for the greater good rather than extreme self interest. When our President seems to embrace willful ignorance, educating our children not be critical thinkers is even more vital.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 01/04/2019 - 10:09 am.

      Our quality of life is in direct relationship to producing children ready to help the economy/health of our State by being prepared for actual real life. Public schools are not doing that and more money will not help with that.

      Bob Barnes hit the nail on the head with the 1st comment on this story.

  7. Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/04/2019 - 12:24 pm.

    Contrary to the naysayers that show up on all the education threads, MN schools are for the most part doing a good job. The state has low unemployment and the economy is doing well. Local employers have few problems finding adequately educated personnel for the types of careers available here.

    The state has issues with both rural and urban poverty and segregation which affect young people’s performance in school. For the most part it seems like MN schools make a good attempt at doing what they can to provide salves for the effects of these deeply rooted issues.

    Where MN seems lacking is programs for high performing math and science students. We have no equivalent to NYC schools like Stuyvestant or Bronx Science or similar schools in top ranked education states like NJ and MA. If a MN student wants to go to an MIT or CalTech they will be at a competitive disadvantage with students from a handful of other states.

    All that said, we do have some interesting side-channels for advanced learners like PSEOA and UMTYMP. The schools here do a fine job of educating the majority students for the opportunities available within Minnesota. We provide more assistance for students who need extra help than most, if not all, other states. The educational system basically fulfills its mandate.

  8. Submitted by Robert Mlinarchik on 03/01/2019 - 03:11 pm.

    I agree with most of the comments, more funding is not the answer. The level and quality of education here in Minnesota has declined significantly over the past 30 years, with no end in sight. Emphasis on ‘no child left behind’ has led to considerably lower requirements, and a total lack of support for students who are achievers. Basically, all students in Minnesota are converging on an average line, and not a high average. The over-achievers are discouraged with the lack of opportunities, the under-achievers are overly supported to force them upward, and the average students are solidly in the middle with everyone else. With two children currently in the system, we are constantly reminded of the lack of educational opportunities. Our district recently approved a Levy for more educational opportunities, but this merely resulted in new district offices and a community pool, how disappointing. No STEM focus, no better equipment, no better teachers, no better curriculum, just more of the same. The graduation requirements for high school are weak, most graduating students are not ready for higher education, trades, business or the world in general. Fully funding schools from the state will only serve to drive wasteful spending to a new level. The system requires a complete rebuild in order to solve the many issues which currently exist. Look at successful states like New York and Arizona. Even Florida recognized that a common core based system destroyed their educational system. This is a top down problem, start at the top and make changes throughout the system.

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