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The other 196 pages of the vetoed education bill: How mixed is this bag?

Education advocates consider: When lawmakers and the governor have cooled off enough to again inhabit the same space, what should they lobby for?

When lawmakers and the governor have cooled off enough to again inhabit the same space, what is it education advocates should lobby for?
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

You know what education advocates spent the long weekend doing? Aside from fishing and mulching and trying frantically to think of how to appease loved ones who had been promised that the marathon stress-fest at the Capitol was going to be over and life would return to normal?

They spent it trying to decide whether — early childhood education left completely aside — they liked the rest of the 196-page education bill [PDF] that was the cause of so much saber rattling in the last days of the legislative session. When lawmakers and the governor have cooled off enough to again inhabit the same space, what is it they should lobby for?

How mixed is this bag? [PDF] Let’s walk through a few high and lowlights.

The big disappointment: In the last days of the session, press advisories and other notices flew fast and furious, with sundry players seeming anxious to be the party that listened when schools said what they really needed was more money on the general fund, the main pot of unrestricted per-pupil dollars.

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Yes, the fund has received “new money” in years past, but not nearly enough to keep up with inflation. Many districts in April sent out layoff notices and braced to try to explain to parents and teachers why, with the electeds trumpeting their education spending, class sizes were going to get bigger — again.

At the start of the session, districts were asking for a general fund increase of 3 percent to 4 percent; 1 percent was on the table. By session’s end various players were insisting they sought to come up to 2 percent but were rebuffed. In the end lawmakers landed on 1.5 percent in the first year of the biennium and 2 percent in the second.

Many of the specific items Gov. Mark Dayton at veto time complained weren’t funded would have fallen, roughly speaking, into this basket. The $25 million in increased compensation for special education that did not survive, for instance, will now simply come from the same underfunded general fund. Ditto increased money for English language learner instruction and school breakfasts — something many districts have just bitten the bullet and funded.

Exhausted from 15 years of making public statements of gratitude for funding increases that translate to cuts, district leaders wish Dayton would have come unbound on this one.

A partial win, money department: The final bill included $32 million for school facilities maintenance funding, half the amount recommended by a 2014 task force, to fix decrepit buildings. Schools in rural Minnesota and in other districts that are poor at least in terms of their tax bases have long struggled to keep the walls from literally crumbling down around students after, say, a flood or decades of deferred maintenance. This badly needed funding stream would get bigger in coming years.

Big loss, money department: A long-overdue $8 million appropriation to increase the number of school support personnel — nurses, counselors, mental health workers and social workers — did not make it into the final package. About the time the snow was melting there was broad consensus on this bill. Unlike the aforementioned special ed services, for the most part these student supports just won’t happen.

Beginner’s luck win No. 1, policy department: Whoever said an earnest member of the citizenry, armed with a big smile and a lack of guile, can’t out-lobby the pros? Never mind that it often takes years of slowly warming lawmakers up to a change in the way things are done, a couple of plucky newcomers carried the day.

A middle-school teacher on leave from Minneapolis Public Schools, Educators for Excellence advocacy fellow Holly Kragthorpe was the driving force behind a provision that would require Minnesota’s colleges and universities to submit data to the state Department of Education to facilitate the creation of scorecards that would allow students seeking to become teachers to see which programs do the best job.

To underscore how big a win this is: Education policy types have long known that far fewer teacher candidates make it into the classroom and stay there than start studying for a teaching career. Minnesota prep programs in particular have been zealous about protecting the files that would prove or disprove this case, routinely denying requests for data from national policy organizations and even taking the matter to court.

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Beginner’s luck win No. 2, policy department: The other newcomers whose policy priorities made it into the final bill, albeit trimmed back, were leaders of Students for Education Reform, whose members identified their frequent need to take expensive, time-consuming remedial college coursework they should have had in high school as a barrier to graduation. Shepherded by Latasha Gandy and Kenneth Eban, this provision would have forced the state to track remediation rates by high school and to calculate its cost.

Losses that compounded look a lot like the first of the four horsemen emerging from a bank of clouds: Charter school operators and authorizers would be forgiven for seeing the fragments of the bill as political tea leaves that, read together, suggest that there are forces that, unable to make them go away altogether, are going to make it very, very hard to be successful.

For instance, consider that one of the things that has helped Minnesota’s growing community of high-performing charters to outperform their mainline district kin is more “seat time” in the form of longer school days and years. The vetoed bill would include extended time aid for schools, but charters would only be eligible to receive a fourth as much as district schools — never mind that the latter are going kicking and screaming into the extended hours.

Charters would face additional hurdles simply enrolling students, too. The money Dayton wanted to spend to create universal, school-based pre-K for 4-year-olds? Charters would not be eligible for that, either. So how do you suppose this weighs into decision-making by parents of the impoverished 4-year-olds the high-performing charter sector is targeting?

Update: The Minnesota Department of Education disputes the interpretation some charter school advocates have made of the bill’s language, saying their intent is to fund preschool in charter schools: “There has never been an intent to exclude charters from the pre-K funding, and anyone who suggests that charter schools would not be eligible to receive pre-K funding is absolutely wrong,” said a spokesman. 

And charters that choose to serve preschoolers anyway — a number already do — would face complications. Those that charge a fee for participation could not give their preschoolers preferential treatment for admissions to the kindergartens they were preparing them for. Those that served them for free — with what money it remains to be seen — could put them at the top of the kindergarten roster.

Couple this with a push to include charter schools under a state integration rule currently under revision. Because of their location, some charters will not be more segregated than their district neighbors. But again, how do you suppose those that have gained a track record within a particular community of color will be able to both comply and fill their classrooms?

Who benefits if an admittedly small but growing number of charters that have for the most part outperformed their district neighbors suddenly don’t have access to the tools that make them successful? Just for starters, the pressure on mainline schools to deliver similar outcomes diminishes.

Eminently sensible wins that were nonetheless uphill slogs: The Minnesota State Colleges and University System (MnSCU) must give college credit for Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) courses taken by high schoolers, who would also now be able to take concurrent enrollment classes in ninth and 10th grades.

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Students may not be placed for two years in a row with a teacher evaluated as “least effective” unless there is no other option.

Q Comp money — once limited to “merit pay” — may more easily be used to support the teacher continuing education that really needs to go hand-in-glove with comprehensive teacher evaluations.

Wins that were more or less ignored the first time around and had to be won again: The Board of Teaching must implement rules to facilitate the licensing of effective teachers trained in other states and must authorize nonprofits working in partnership with Minnesota colleges and universities to train teachers. Yes, these were policies passed in 2011 about which the board has expressed continuing ambivalence, to put it mildly.

If lawmakers really do want to see alternative paths to the classroom respected, they would be wise to keep the $200,000 they budgeted to restore cuts to board licensure staff. The funding shortfall hasn’t been the primary issue, but examiners will be needed if licenses are to be issued.

A sneaky win from the department of if you can’t beat ‘em join and co-opt ‘em: Mid-session, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius followed up on a task force recommendation to streamline the number of tests Minnesota students take by recommending, among other things, that assessment be capped at 2 percent of a student’s year. A couple of days later the governor introduced a broader push to eliminate a third of the 21 tests currently mandated, including some Cassellius had wanted to keep.

Three of the seven tests — career and college aptitude assessments produced by the company that produces the ACT — were not going to be sold anymore anyway. The Legislature this year went a step further and made the ACT recommended but optional. Districts must offer it, but kids can say no.

Because lawmakers two years ago eliminated high school exit exams, and because teachers are increasingly brash about pressuring students not to take the MCAs, it would be possible going forward for a district to collect precious little data regarding its students’ level of college preparedness.

The legislation added a high school writing exam and would cap the amount of time students spend taking locally mandated tests at 1 percent of the school year. Unclear is whether the cap allows enough time for the tests school districts argue are more useful in helping teachers pinpoint what assistance individual kids receive. (The state has long resisted considering using these tests in place of the MCAs.) And it leaves MDE, which has been much friendlier to teacher union proposals than the Legislature, in charge of the instrument by which schools are held accountable.

And if there are glitches in testing, districts can choose not to use the results in evaluating teachers. Numerous states this year have experienced computer assessment failures. Minnesota’s vendor, Pearson, has yet to submit a more substantive explanation than, in essence, it got hacked.

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And one last cynical observation about the red-hot potato that is pre-K: Dayton’s remarks in the hours before his veto had the early childhood education community exhaling that the governor would be open to funding his priority in part through beefed up school readiness funds — which allow for much more flexible and targeted programming.

If they weren’t crazy about universal, school-based programs for 4-year-olds, they were darn near apoplectic about the governor’s proffered compromise, which was half-day pre-K. Three hours of preschool would still leave the impoverished families — or for that matter middle-class parents — that need quality care for kids 0-5 so they can work trying to find and pay for early ed. Half a loaf, in short, is not better than none.