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School funding, safety, and discipline reforms top list of priorities for Minnesota education advocates heading into 2020 Legislature

Minnesota’s projected $1.33 billion surplus has given education activists a renewed sense of hope that they’ll secure greater investments in everything from teacher diversity efforts to school safety. 

Minnesota State Capitol
The $1.33 billion surplus included in Minnesota’s recent budget forecast has given education lobbyists a renewed sense of hope that they’ll secure greater investments in everything from teacher diversity efforts and school safety aid to preschool access in a supplemental budget.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Associations and nonprofits representing educators, school administrators and families are busy finalizing their agendas ahead of the 2020 Minnesota legislative session, which begins Feb. 11.

For the most part, that means fine-tuning wish lists from last year’s Legislature, which was marked by modest funding wins along with a whole host of failed policy asks. 

This year, education advocates will still be up against a politically divided Legislature, though some policy initiatives may stand a better chance at gaining traction this year, since it’s a non-budget year. 

“The fact that Gov. Dayton vetoed the education budget the last bonding year — and that there wasn’t a lot of policy in the budget last year — expect increased pressure to pass policy this year,” says Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota, an education advocacy nonprofit.

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Funding pitches, meanwhile, are still likely to dominate education committee meetings at the capitol. The $1.33 billion surplus included in Minnesota’s recent budget forecast has given education lobbyists a renewed sense of hope that they’ll secure greater investments in everything from teacher diversity efforts and school safety aid to preschool access. 

Madaline Edison
Madaline Edison
For instance, the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA), which represents 333 school districts across the state, has three major funding asks that build upon things that passed last year: a 1 percent boost to the general education formula (in addition to the 2 percent increases that passed in 2019); more school safety aid; and an investment to reduce the special education cross-subsidy — the deficit between special education expenses and revenues that districts are on the hook for covering with dollars from their general education fund — which lawmakers froze, but didn’t reduce, last session. 

“Some would say it isn’t a funding year. But what we would say is there’s a $1.33 billion surplus. And all three of these really total about 12 percent of the surplus,” said Denis Dittrich, director of government relations for the association. “And we think with education being about half of the state’s funding obligations, asking for 12 percent of the surplus is not unreasonable to meet very substantial needs in our districts.”

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the major players in the education realm and their priorities for this upcoming session. 

School leaders: safety aid, inflation fix

Over the course of the past two years, state lawmakers have made two significant investments in school safety: $25 million in school-safety grants, followed by another $30 million in school-safety aid. Both were one-time investments, however, that fell far short of the demand expressed by districts. 

Dittrich says MSBA will be lobbying to make the 2019 increase to the school-safety aid funding stream permanent, so that more school leaders can begin using those dollars to hire mental health professionals — positions that require ongoing funding. 

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says those he represents at the Capitol would also like to see that bump in school-safety spending become a permanent fixture. And those dollars, he adds, should also be made available to districts currently left out of these safety investment, like intermediate districts and cooperatives. 

In terms of funding, Amoroso says MASA will be bringing forth a plan to eliminate the special education cross-subsidy altogether, over the course of the next eight years. 

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That would do so much good — providing districts the opportunity to use general fund dollars they wouldn’t have to use for the cross-subsidy for students in other areas,” he said. 

Gary Amoroso
Gary Amoroso
His association will also be supporting a 1 percent increase to the per-pupil funding formula for the 2021 school year, to bring the total increase up to 3 percent. The long-term fix, though  — supported by both associations and a host of other education advocates — involves asking lawmakers to index future education funding increases to the rate of inflation. 

Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association,  sees this as a bonding year with the potential for one-time funding. While the districts he represents would surely welcome more school-safety dollars, his association’s ask is a bit more specific this year: policy changes that would grant cooperatives in Greater Minnesota access to more financial tools (via bonds and levies) to build new facilities to meet their students’ vocational and special education needs. 

Educators: teacher pipeline, discipline reforms

Nolan says the other top priority of his members in Greater Minnesota focuses on chipping away at the teacher shortage issue. He’ll be lobbying lawmakers for a one-time investment to establish a grow your own program in the three northern regions of the state. 

“Northeast and northwest Minnesota had two of the three highest percentages of teachers teaching on special permission — a marker for teacher shortages,” he said. 

Fred Nolan
Fred Nolan
These programs would seek to create a pipeline of teachers in these regions, by connecting non-licensed educators and others in the community and high schools with teacher training opportunities in partnership with local higher education institutions. 

Representing adult basic education teachers and staff, the Literacy Action Network will also be pursuing resources to build and sustain it teacher corps. Tom Cytron-Hysom, a legislative liaison for the group, says they’ll be asking lawmakers to bring adult basic education funding — which doesn’t get calculated on a per-pupil basis — more in line with K-12 funding. 

“Especially now, with labor shortage, [we’re] being asked to do more workforce development,” he said, noting those programs tend to require more specialized teaching staff. 

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Meanwhile, Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, will be lobbying lawmakers for three key teacher licensure reforms: to allow tier-one teachers to become part of the collective bargaining unit, to close a  “loophole” that allows candidates to get a tier 3 license without having attended a formal teacher preparation program, and to make preK educator licensure a hiring requirement.

As Education Minnesota pursues teacher licensure changes, Edison, with Educators for Excellence, says her organization will be closely scrutinizing any proposals that could negatively impact the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. 

In a state with some of the most glaring exclusionary discipline disparities, discipline reforms are another top priority for E4E members. The group belongs to the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition, which has crafted a hallmark package of policy asks that consider things like student dismissal regulations and teacher training. This year’s wish list includes the elimination of two primary areas of concern: seclusion rooms and preschool suspensions. 

Advocates: teacher diversity, preK scholarships

Josh Crosson, senior policy director with EdAllies, another nonprofit group that belongs to the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition, says another zero-tolerance issue will likely get lots of attention at the Capitol this year: lunch shaming. 

“There will likely be some efforts to better define it and what the repercussions are for schools and staff who shame students,” he said.

EdAllies has also begun organizing parents, students and educators to testify against any calls for a statewide moratorium on charter school growth or expansions — a policy item that’s already begun stirring up some heated debates in St. Paul. 

Josh Crosson
MinnPost file photo by Taryn Phaneuf
Josh Crosson
“We think a charter moratorium is a blunt policy that will harm countless students,” he said. “But we do think that improving the quality of charters — and all schools — should be a topic of conversation.”

Efforts to boost teacher diversity also rank high on the group’s agenda. That includes reducing barriers to licensure for teacher candidates of color. It should also include investing more in attracting new alternative teacher preparation programs to take root in Minnesota, he says.  

Additional teacher diversification efforts will resurface this session as a number of advocates and educators revive a suite of coalition-backed proposals included in the Increase Teachers of Color Act of 2019 that had strong bipartisan support, but failed to secure much more than base-level funding for existing programs.

“That’s our top priority,” Samantha Diaz, legislative and policy director in education with the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs said.

Education advocates in the early education sector are also hoping to move the needle after a lackluster year. Lawmakers invested enough to continue funding for 4,000 existing preschool seats in low-income school districts. But efforts to expand access to more low-income students fell flat. 

“We do see an opportunity to make some progress this session,” says Ericca Maas, executive director of Close Gaps by 5. “Even if that’s on the order of thousands of children, that makes a huge difference in the lives of families.”