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Education bills: Crunch time at the Capitol

Ordinarily, figuring out which bill will make it into an omnibus bill for a floor vote is pretty routine reporting. But this has been an unusual year.

Friday is the second of three deadlines for state lawmakers to figure out which bills will pass out of the committees into which they were born and onto the floors of the House and Senate.

It’s crunch time in St. Paul. Friday is the second of three deadlines for state lawmakers to figure out which bills will pass out of the committees into which they were born and onto the floors of the House and Senate. Think of it as the moment when tadpoles lose their tails and sprout leg buds, morphing into frogs.

Ordinarily, figuring out which will make it into an omnibus bill for a floor vote is pretty routine reporting. But this has been an unusual year at the Legislature, whose members mostly seem interested in wrapping as quickly and quietly as possible so they can get home to see whether they still reside in their district.

Hearings have been scheduled and canceled, bills voted on before lawmakers were seated and items laid over from last year tucked into metaphorical drawers. One possible reason: A large number of the bills are arguably nonsensical.

Yes, nonsensical. I’ll elaborate, but I think it would be helpful to first review the GOP leadership’s endgame as some policy advocates imagine it.

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Few individual, single-topic bills make it to the governor’s desk. Usually, as the tadpoles are passed out of committee they are added to a topic-area omnibus bill that goes to a floor vote. Whether an item has died or not is thus relatively easy to discern.

Education omnibus bill

At the moment, word in the Capitol hearing rooms is that there will be only one omnibus bill, from the Education Finance Committee, and that everything else that passes will go individually to Gov. Mark Dayton, who will sign or veto. Lawmakers are said to be determined to put the pile on Dayton’s desk by April 5, after which they will take a 10-day recess.

The tall poppies the House and Senate leaders want you focused on during that break: The Republican proposal to pay last year’s 60-40 funding shift (now reduced to 63-37 by recent surpluses) down to 70-30 by draining the newly replenished reserve and a bill that enjoys tepid bipartisan support that would take teacher performance into much greater account during layoffs.

State fiscal types have called the proposal unwise, but what GOPer worth her salt wouldn’t want to go back to her newly reconfigured district explaining that popular opinion regarding last year notwithstanding, it was they who wanted to send schools more money and protect good teachers but Dayton wouldn’t let them? They do not have enough votes to override a veto, so they might as well get some political mileage out of the session.

The individual bills

How about those individual bills? Both chambers have passed versions of a bill that would base teacher layoffs on licensure, performance data and seniority, in that order. It’s referred to as LIFO, the acronym for last in, first out, ostensibly the system it replaces.

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Curiously, on Monday the conference committee reconciling the two versions heard from a national expert on protecting top-quality teachers from layoff. Two more hearings are supposedly in the works, one at which teachers will be heard and another for parents.

Why hold more hearings on bills that have already passed when there are heaps that have yet to be heard at all? Good question. My best guess: There are progressives and DFLers who desperately want some version of this reform who are fanning tiny flames of hope that tweaks will win more DFL support that will persuade Dayton to sign it.

Evaluation of principals

Hot on the heels of a state working group’s recommendations [PDF], the Senate Education Committee passed a bill that would add student performance data to the criteria used to evaluate principals, but to date the House has shown no signs of scheduling its own hearing on the issue. This would, of course, kill it.

The measure is opposed by both of the state’s principals groups, which raise the same concerns teachers raised last year. They are concerned that pegging 35 percent of a performance evaluation to student test data is unfair because the only tests currently in use test only math and reading, are charitably described as works in progress and incredibly tough to account for variables.

Not laughing are teachers, who want to know where the principals were this time last year.

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Also sitting motionless: A bill to hand the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul control of their school districts. Neither mayor likes the idea — Minneapolis’ R.T. Rybak would prefer being given the authority to appoint some school board members but otherwise wants nothing to do with it — but this will likely play well in the suburbs.

Online requirement

Rep. Pam Myhra, a Burnsville Republican, got some strange traction for a bill she introduced that apes legislation passed by some other states and championed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a big fan of the private sector.

Rep. Pam MyhraRep. Pam Myhra

As first introduced, House File 2127 and its Senate companion would require all Minnesota students, starting four years from now, to have taken at least one online-only course in order to graduate from high school. It would have allowed those virtual classrooms to be located anywhere, operated by employees of for-profit companies that don’t necessarily employ any of those pesky licensed teachers. it would, in short, have created a heck of a growth market.

This one went from tadpole to iguana. During its various engrossments — legislatese for successive iterations, which might or might not be bigger and grosser — the measure has acquired provisions requiring all courses be taught by licensed Minnesota educators, offered by approved operators and include digital coursework done in schools.

Urban districts, most of which already offer digital courses, are now OK with it, even though none can muster anything but a shrug when it comes to the need for a graduation requirement. Smaller districts and many in Greater Minnesota are not, not least because there are bandwidth and technology issues, issues of economies of scale and unfunded mandate issues; one rural administrator calls it the iPad bill.

Mariani’s bill

Completely unheard is a bill introduced in the House by Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, that would revamp the state’s school desegregation program, which is based on the work of a bipartisan committee appointed in the wake of last year’s shutdown.

Rep. Sondra EricksonRep. Sondra Erickson

Four of the six panel members appointed by the GOP, which very much wanted to eliminate both the rule requiring districts to strive for integration and the associated funding, ended up deciding in favor of a revamped desegregation policy.

Last, my very personal favorite: Even with the clock running down on weighty topics like teacher license reciprocity, charter oversight reform and bullying, Rep. Sondra Erickson, a retired English teacher and the Princeton Republican who is chair of the House Education Reform Committee, found time to author a bill that would take two words out of an existing law.

House File 2878 would amend Minnesota Statutes 2010, section 120A.22, subdivision 1, Parental Responsibility, thusly: “The parent of a child is primarily responsible for assuring that the child acquires knowledge and skills that are essential for effective citizenship.”