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Despite new calls to fix Minnesota’s educational disparities, major policy reforms aren’t guaranteed in 2020

State legislators came close to passing an omnibus education policy bill during the regular session’s final moments, but it didn’t happen. Now two bills are being considered in the House.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker testifying during a House Education Policy Committee virtual hearing on Tuesday.
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker testifying during a House Education Policy Committee virtual hearing on Tuesday.
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It bears repeating: Minnesota produces some of the best K-12 academic outcomes in the nation. It also consistently produces some of the greatest educational disparities between white students and students of color.

The disparities show up not just in math and reading scores, but also in discipline rates, graduation rates, access to advanced courses and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the killing of George Floyd, have amplified calls to fix the state’s education system, which has been failing Black and brown students for decades.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent distance learning shined a brighter light on the disparities that exist in our education system — from access to the internet and technology to the need for culturally appropriate supports and to the lack of mental health support,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said during a virtual hearing held by the House Education Policy Committee on Tuesday. “Then the senseless and disturbing murder of George Floyd demonstrated, once again, how much our educational structures must be rebuilt to fully serve and support communities of color and American Indian communities.”

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Still, major education policy reforms at the state level remain in limbo.

State legislators came close to passing an omnibus education policy bill during the regular session’s final moments. It would have chipped away at some contributing factors to the achievement gap, also known as the opportunity gap. But it never made it off the House floor, and the Senate didn’t have time to vote on it.

Two bills in the House

During the current special session, members of the DFL-controlled House Education Policy Committee have revived that slimmed down bill (HF 33) with a 10-4 vote. It includes things like curriculum requirements for vaping prevention, and relicensure requirements for mental health and suicide prevention training. Its companion bill in the GOP-controlled Senate (SF 26) was tabled on Monday.

In a separate effort to give more robust education policy reforms another look, the House Education Policy Committee also passed a bill stacked with provisions that haven’t been taken up in the Senate during special session.

State State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein
State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein
Still, the committee heard testifiers in support of HF 36, authored by Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, and voted to place it on the general register. This bill includes a number of familiar reforms that are backed by diverse groups such as the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition and the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota.

The bill’s reforms also have the full backing of Ricker, who testified during the virtual hearing on Tuesday. “One bill cannot and will not fix years of racism and socioeconomic inequality experienced by historically marginalized communities,” she said. “However, the proposals in HF 36 are the building blocks we need to help mitigate those disparities by moving us closer to reaching our collective goal for every child to have a world-class education, in a safe and welcoming environment, and with caring and qualified educators.”

While the bill doesn’t have a companion bill in the Senate, in the familiar sense of parallel content, it has been linked to S F7 — a $5 million appropriation for a program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) — so that it may stay in play during special session.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
“Even though things may not have a companion [bill], you can still procedurally line up bills through rules,” Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, ranking minority member in the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy committee, explained. “I would say until it’s over, there is always a possibility.”

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, Chair of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy committee, disagrees. She says representatives in the House are loading up this policy bill with controversial items that “have no hope of passing.”

“It is a travesty to see agreed-upon policy like LETRS, policy that will help close our nation-leading achievement gap, get bottled up with controversial political gamesmanship,” she said. “Our students, their families, their teachers and our communities deserve better.”

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From early-ed suspensions to lunch shaming

In presenting HF 36 to the House Education Policy Committee on Tuesday, Ben Weeks, with the House research department, lumped all of the provisions into seven categories. The bill includes provisions related to student discipline, specifically related to the removal of students from the classroom or school. That list includes prioritizing non-exclusionary discipline practices, prohibiting pre-K suspensions, and ensuring a suspended pupil has the opportunity to complete all missed work for full credit.

Maren Hulden
Maren Hulden
Maren Hulden, an attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, spoke in support of these reforms as a way to address stark racial disparities in exclusionary discipline practices in Minnesota schools.

“Most challenging behaviors are an indication the child has a need they lack the skills to express. Unfortunately, many of our school policies are based on the premise that challenging behaviors are choices by children. And research shows that adults are more likely to watch for and expect misbehavior from Black children, over white students,” she said.

The bill also seeks to boost teacher diversity in Minnesota schools, specifying  that the percentage of teachers of color and American Indian teachers should increase by at least two percentage points each year, with a long-term goal of having teacher diversity match student diversity by 2040.

“Data shows that students perform better when they have teachers who look like them. And that all students benefit when they learn from a diverse group of teachers, reflective of our classroom and our communities,” Ricker said.

Michael Rodriguez
Michael Rodriguez
A third bucket of provisions would bolster social-emotional learning services, as a key component of non-exclusionary discipline practices and a student’s readmission plan.

Michael Rodriguez, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s College and Education and Human Development, stressed the importance of elevating social-emotional learning in schools, especially for students who have experienced trauma. “Learning is a social activity and cognitive development, academic development and identity development co-occur. They are intertwined. And we cannot be successful with the cognitive side if we avoid social-emotional learning,” he said.

Students “who are at a [social-emotional learning] level where they’re prepared to learn” are at a distinct advantage, he explained. Research shows they have a full grade-point average higher in their GPA, they’re twice as likely to have college goals, and they are less likely to use drugs and alcohol and to skip school, to name a few.

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Along the lines of positive identity promotion in schools and boosting student engagement, the bill includes a handful of provisions focused on enhancing ethnic studies and inclusive practices in schools. It also includes cultural competency among the requirements for teacher and principal evaluations, and it protects the right of American Indian students to wear tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance at a graduation ceremony.

Lastly, the package of provisions further tackles the issue of lunch shaming, banning schools from keeping students with unpaid lunch debt from participating in school activities, and prohibiting any meal withdrawal from a free-and-reduced-price qualifying student, even if they have acquired school meal debt.

“It became even more important during distance learning to ensure all students in need are still receiving meals. However, in rare circumstances, we have seen students punished for adult problems,” Ricker said, adding “we must provide clear and concise guidance for kind, caring ways to provide meals to all of our students, that recognize the financial stress that unpaid meal debt creates for food service budgets.”