Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

MinnPost’s education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

For education, will upcoming legislative ‘unsession’ be ‘session of undoing’?

Billed as a refresher on last year’s education legislation and an overture to this year’s, Wednesday’s K-12 Education Committee hearing was most notable for its utter lack of detail.

Gov. Mark Dayton has billed the 2014 legislative session as the “unsession,” in which redundant and unnecessary laws are ferretted out and taken off the books.
Courtesy of Minnesota House Public Information Services

Partway through a meeting of the E-12 Education Committee Wednesday at the Minnesota Legislature, someone left the side door to the hearing room ajar. Down the hall, a worker broke out first a pneumatic drill and then, some 15 minutes later, the world’s loudest vacuum cleaner.

Article continues after advertisement

Hardly anyone seemed disturbed. But then again, hardly anyone was paying attention.

Eventually Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, one of the chairs of the joint Senate-House committee, motioned to a staffer. When the audience finally looked up from its texting and tweeting, it was to track her long march across the room to shut the door.

Billed as a refresher on last year’s education legislation and an overture to this year’s, the hearing was most notable for its utter lack of detail. Indeed, the 2014 preview from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) consisted largely of the announcement that its agenda had been submitted to the governor’s office.

No specifics were forthcoming.

Teacher evaluations, student exams …

Gov. Mark Dayton has billed it as the “unsession,” in which redundant and unnecessary laws are ferretted out and taken off the books. To judge by the legislative agendas that advocacy groups are beginning to release, in terms of education it may well be the session where we revisit controversial bills of years past.

More of a “session of undoing,” if you will.

Education Minnesota, for example, has said it will “advocate for improvements” to the state’s teacher evaluation law based on its analysis of data from a pilot under way in a number of districts. The statewide teacher union also wants fewer assessments.

Brenda Cassellius

MDE’s wish list may yet be unknown, but Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has also said she thinks fewer tests would be a good idea.

Indeed, hardly anyone in education approves of the current testing regime, in which students are subjected to one set of exams — radically improved from years past — that satisfies federal requirements for tracking school progress, another that measures whether a student is making a year or more’s growth in a year and, finally, the quizzes and formative tests administered on the fly that tell teachers whether a skill or lesson has been mastered.

The bedeviling detail? Getting rid of tests makes it harder to determine whether a school is failing large numbers of students and should be closed or targeted for overhaul. And, by extension, it presumably would require changes to the portion of the evaluation law teachers fear most: the inclusion of student-achievement data in individual teacher evaluations.

The result of years of legislative struggle, evaluations are set to go into effect statewide next year. While lots of districts are already using evaluation systems that appear to be working well, the rollout remains a red-hot controversy.

Wholesale scrappings unlikely

Minnesota is committed to both the evaluations and assessments in the accountability system MDE created to win a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind’s onerous, outdated requirements. The state will need to seek a new waiver next year, so revised laws are more likely than wholesale scrappings.

Also likely to crop back up are changes to state rules needed to facilitate the licensing of teachers who trained or worked in other states. In March of 2011, lawmakers passed a law mandating the streamlining of Minnesota’s notoriously arcane and seemingly arbitrary rules on which teachers with experience elsewhere may win licenses here.

The teachers union and the state’s traditional colleges of education were vehemently opposed to revamping reciprocity, as it’s known. And the state Board of Teaching, which operates independently of MDE, has failed to create the associated rules.

A pilot over the summer — more than two years after the changes were mandated — came and went. Nearly three years after the law changed, teachers with proven track records elsewhere are struggling to get the credentials to take jobs offered to them by principals who are desperate to hire them.

Given the years of Sturm und Drang that preceded the laws, why back off of zealous implementation now? Accountability in education has always been ideologically unique, with handfuls of DFLers willing to risk angering Education Minnesota by crossing the aisle and handfuls of GOPers resisting partisan pushes to starve the beast.

DFL firmly in control

This year, the DFL controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Up for re-election, Dayton has already begun giving away hints of how education will figure into the first-term accomplishments he touts.

And finally, Dayton’s veto last spring of a $1.5 million appropriation in the higher ed omnibus bill that would have helped to expand the alternative certification program Teach for America was received by many as a signal that the governor was backing off more controversial education reforms.

(We must pause here for Learning Curve’s by now standard Kramer Disclaimer: Teach for America’s Co-CEO Matt Kramer is the son of MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer. Matt Kramer’s wife, Katie Barrett Kramer, is a TFA alum, as is his brother, Eli. Eli’s wife, Jessica Cordova Kramer, works for TFA. None of them were involved in the preparation of this article.)

The best descriptor of the perceived shift was perhaps voiced by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who said Dayton “blew a dog whistle” with the veto.

“I frankly don’t believe he knew what he was doing,” Rybak said in an August interview with MinnPost. “He sent a message I don’t believe he knew he was sending that it was open season on anyone who was doing some of these local innovations.

“I fully believe he did not understand how seismic a message he sent.”

No surprise: Education Minnesota recently endorsed the governor’s re-election bid.

Can a handful of determined Democrats — most notably senators Patricia Torres Rey of Minneapolis and Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka and Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul — keep enough heat on to preserve recent years’ work? Nothing in the 120 minutes of kabuki that took place at the Capitol Wednesday betrayed so much as a clue.