Thursday, February 27, 2020

February Forecast In and It's More Good News.  Minnesota Management and Budget released its February forecast today and the numbers show the state has added $181 million to the projected surplus for the remainder of the biennium bringing the total to just over $1.5 billion.  Legislative battle lines, already drawn last week, appear to have been fortified by the news, with Republicans calling for tax cuts and DFLers advocating increased spending focused on early childhood programs.  The Governor has not given a comprehensive response to the uptick (that will likely be coming in the next week, expressed by his supplemental budget proposal). It's always important to remember that the forecast is merely that:  a forecast.  The trends that have contributed to the forecast number were all prior to the spread of the coronavirus, which has driven the stock market sharply downward this week and may create economic shockwaves that could slow growth and drive future forecasts downward.  Given the possible lingering economic effects related to the coronavirus, I wouldn't be surprised to see caution become the watchword for the remainder of the 2020 legislative session.

Excellent Hearing on English Learner Formula Today.  The House Education Finance Division hearing HF 448--Representative Kaohly Her's bill that would dramatically increase the English Learner formula--this morning.  I have always believed that the English Learner formula is the education funding formula with the greatest amount of formula "integrity."  The recipients of English Language instruction are easily identified.  The staff used to provide the instruction to these students is likewise clearly identifiable.  The exit criteria for students to leave the program are also clear.  There is no other formula in Minnesota's array of education funding streams in which costs can be so readily and accurately traced.  The problem is that the English Learner formula is so woefully underfunded.  There is currently a shortfall in the amount of revenue provided for language instruction to English Learners and the reported costs of providing these services exceeding $100 million per year and these costs fall on districts throughout the state.  Whether there will be money to at least partially correct this unfortunate funding shortfall this year remains to be seen, but this issue was also discussed at length by the Education Funding Working Group currently developing funding proposals for the 2021 legislative session and hopefully addressing this issue will be near the top of the list in that group's recommendations.

Senate Equalization Proposal.  I reported earlier in the week that the Senate Republican caucus has included referendum equalization in its comprehensive tax relief package and that proposal was introduced as legislation--SF 3533--on Monday, February 24.  It's the first section of that bill, so it is easy to find.  The proposal is very straightforward.  It raises the first tier equalizing factor from $567,000 per pupil of referendum market value to $650,000 per resident pupil unit of referendum market value.  The second tier equalizing factor is raised from $290,000 of referendum market value per resident pupil unit to $320,000 of referendum market value per resident pupil unit.  The proposal costs approximately $19 million per year and it would come in the form of property tax relief.  Thanks should go to Senate Tax Chair Senator Roger Chamberlain who has been a strong and consistent supporter of referendum equalization.  Hopefully, more progress can be made this session to augment that $10 million put into the program in 2019.

Another Horrid and Avoidable Student Injury.  Less than 48 hours after the Senate Transportation Committee held a compelling hearing complete with chilling testimony and video evidence relating to drivers ignoring school bus stop-arms, a 7-year-old St. Paul student lies in critical condition in a St. Paul hospital after a driver ignored a school bus with the stop-arm extended and the 8-way warning lights activated and stuck the student in the crosswalk on his way to boarding the bus.  As I wrote earlier in the week, I have worked on this issue for quite a long time and I constantly marvel at the fact that there are over 100,000 stop-arm violations per year (relatively few are prosecuted) and the number of violations shows no indication of abating.  In Tuesday's hearing, it was obvious there may be momentum to funding an extensive public education program to bring greater awareness to the stop-arm law and the today's unfortunate incident is evidence that it is needed and needed now.

StarTribune: St. Paul 7-year-old critical after he's struck while walking to his bus

WCCO TV: Boy, 7, Critically Injured By Motorist While Attempting To Board School Bus, Driver Cooperating With Police

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

School Bus Safety Hearing was Awesome!  The Senate Transportation Committee held a riveting meeting on Tuesday on the issue of school bus safety and the plague of stop-arm violations that threaten the safety of students throughout Minnesota.  The hearing featured a number of videos taken from school bus cameras that show serial stop-arm violations, some of which almost killed students boarding the bus.  Those videos will be linked in the news stories I am including in this entry.

The testimony provided by transportation directors, bus contractors, and bus drivers was extremely compelling.  Jim Perrotti--a school bus driver for the Zumbrota-Mazeppa school district--was direct and emotional when describing the near-miss of a student by a speeding driver who ignored an extended stop-arm.  Video of that incident is included in the story below.  There was also testimony from a group from Paynesville regarding an incident where a semi-truck passed a bus on the right--the side of the bus where students enter the vehicle--when a student was boarding (also featured in a video below).  Edina transportation director David White described a recent incident when a student was hit by a driver ignoring an extended stop-arm.  The student survived, but did sustain injuries.

Senator Rich Draheim is the author of SF 1050, a bill that would appropriate $50,000 for the creation of a school bus stop-arm awareness program through the development of a set of public service announcements aimed at educating drivers on this important issue.  There was $40,000 for this purpose in the 2018 mega-ginormous thousand-page supplemental funding and policy bill that was vetoed by Governor Dayton and hopefully the supplemental funding and policy bills will be constructed in a way that will make gubernatorial approval less complicated.

I have worked with the student transportation industry for over 20 years and I can say that the entire industry is gratified by the interest shown over the past few sessions on the issue of school bus safety and in particular, the stop-arm violation issue.  There are over 100,000 stop-arm violations each year in Minnesota, but only a small fraction of those are prosecuted due to the difficulty of getting license plate numbers on the offending vehicles.  Enhanced technology and the installation of cameras on stop-arms would help with that, but a comprehensive driver-education effort may yield even better results.  I don't know if anything can be done about driver arrogance, but an education program would help with driver ignorance.  Hopefully, the House Transportation Committee will take up the companion to SF 1050--HF 1010 authored by Representative Alice Hausman--and fund this important program.

Here is news coverage of yesterday's hearing.  Several of the videos are quite chilling, so be forewarned.

Duluth News-Tribune: 'It's a miracle a kid hasn't been killed': Lawmakers look to increase school bus safety awareness

StarTribune: Legislators want to improve school bus safety

WCCO TV: Minnesota Senate Republicans Say Many Drivers Are Ignoring School Bus Stop Arms

In closing, I just wanted to give everyone a quick reminder that today (Wednesday) is National School Bus Driver Appreciation Day, so whether you're a student, parent, teacher, or school administrator, take some time to recognize your bus drivers for the difficult job they do.  From the testimony presented at yesterday's hearing, it's obvious how much bus drivers care about the important job they perform.  It's important to remember that for many students, the bus driver is the first school employee they see in the morning and the last one they see at the end of the school day.  They set the tone and they set it well, so how about some love for your school bus drivers.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Interesting Hearing in Senate Today.  The Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee tackled the reading issue today and the key word (or acronym) is LETRS.  LETRS stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.  LETRS is a nationally-recognized suite of staff development products that has shown to help improve reading scores in states and school districts where it is employed.

The hearing started out with a reports from Dr. Christy Hovanetz, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and Dr. Amy Schulting, the Dyslexia Specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education.  The verdict in both reports is that Minnesota's scores are solid for white students, but scores for students of color lag behind national averages, which is the primary contributor to the achievement gap that exists in Minnesota.

Given this background, Senator (and Committee Chair) Carla Nelson has introduced SF 2989 and SF 2990, bills that would direct revenue toward LETRS from the compensatory formula and literacy incentive aid to provide staff development to all teachers of reading in the state.  It is important to note that the portion of the compensatory formula that would be re-directed is currently dedicated toward extended time aid.  As was made clear during the hearing, it is not compensatory revenue in its entirety.  This is different from the literacy incentive aid, all of which would go toward these staff development efforts.  After adopting some clarifying amendments, Senator Nelson combined her two bills into one bill and will move it forward in that fashion.  It is also important to point out that this bill has no price tag as it only changes policy as it relates to a portion of a district's compensatory revenue and it's literacy incentive aid.

The committee also heard Senator Roger Chamberlain's bill--SF 3187--that would appropriate $1,000,000 to be dispensed to districts in the form of grants to provide staff development under LETRS.

It all looks good.  One problem that might occur is that the statutes rarely designate a provider when creating a grant program.  There are creative ways around that problem, but it is doubtful (at least from my experience) that there would be a mandate that spelled out LETRS as the provider.

Here is a link to the LETRS program.  The program is a bit on the pricey side when it comes to cost/teacher, but there is no question that it is highly regarded and is showing results where employed.


Constitutional Amendment Introduced in the House.  It seems like just yesterday (Hey! It was just yesterday.) when I wrote that the proposed constitutional amendment promoted by retired Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neil Kashkari had yet to be introduced.  Voila!  It was introduced today as HF 3658, with St. Paul area Representative Rena Moran serving as chief author.  There are 33 authors and 25 are Republicans.  I don't know the calculus on that and it will be interesting to see the mix of Senate authorship.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Second Week Highlights.  It's the time in the non-budget year of the biennium when things are moving both slowly and quickly at the same time.  There hasn't been a lot of talk about funding across the entire budget, which is to be expected in the non-budget year.  The February forecast comes out in the next week or so and all expectations are that the budget numbers will remain favorable, especially for the remainder of this biennium.  The dicey part is projecting budget numbers into the next biennium, where up to this point, the cost of inflation absorbs almost all of the projected surplus.  Both sides are proposing items--tax cuts in the Senate, increases in spending (especially in the area of early childhood) in the House--and it remains to be seen how those differences can be reconciled.  It further remains to be seen what the Governor will propose as part of his supplemental budget, which is rumored to be very modest.

The Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee heard from retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neil Kashkari provided a brief presentation on the proposed constitutional amendment they have been promoting last Monday.  There wasn't a lot of discussion of the proposal and while it is early in the session, the groundwork for serious legislative discussion has yet to be laid.  There's plenty of time left in the session, but a bill with the amendment's proposed language has yet to be introduced and the first policy committee deadline falls on March 13, leaving only three weeks for it to remain alive (at least formally) during the 2020 legislative session.  Not meeting the committee deadline wouldn't necessarily kill the proposal, but given that there does not seem to be universal acceptance of the approach and the possibility of amendment and negotiation between the House and Senate if the proposal were to pass each house of the Legislature in a different form makes the amendment's prospects a bit dicey at the current time.  Again, just because it sits where it does right now doesn't preclude it getting moved--and moved successfully--during the 2020 session.  It just makes passage more unlikely with each passing day.

The Senate also received a comprehensive presentation on Minnesota's education funding framework and how it stacks up when compared to the rate of inflation and the levels of funding in other states.  On Wednesday, the committee heard from a variety of "turnaround" schools that have shown dramatic improvements in academic performance.

The House Education Finance Division has spent its hearing receiving testimony from organizations that received grants last session.  The testimony has been quite interesting and has shown that good things can happen when creative approaches to education are funded.

The House Education Policy Committee has been taking testimony on individual bills that may either find their way into an omnibus education bill or travel on their own to the House floor.  Compelling testimony was heard on Wednesday in support of Representative Mary Kunesh-Podein's HF 3201, which would expand the Teachers of Color Act by providing additional funding to put more people of color in front of Minnesota students.  On Tuesday, the committee spent considerable time on Representative Heather Edelson's bills relating to the prevention of vaping.  Representative Edelson's HF 3164 would expend $250,000 for grants to individual school districts to discourage vaping.  Her HF 3166 would require school districts to provide instruction to make students aware of vaping and to prevent its use.

Attention on Equalization.  It's been a good week for the topic of equalization. Whether anything comes of the welcome attention remains to be seen, the issue did come up in two separate venues last week.  On Thursday night at the Minnesota Department of Education's session of the Education Finance Working Group, South St. Paul superintendent Dave Webb and Finance Director Aaron Bushberger gave a stellar presentation on the issue, providing a great example of the disadvantage property taxpayers in low property wealth districts face when attempting to augment state funding for operations or for building projects.  Kudos to both of them on a job well done.

The next day, the Senate Republican caucus announced that referendum equalization will be part of their $1.3 billion tax relief proposal they hope to pass during the 2020 legislative session.  The linked article from the StarTribune (Minnesota Senate GOP: Turn surplus into tax cuts) doesn't mention equalization, but in conversations with Senate staff, the equalization effort would spend approximately $20 million per year and would give districts the option of using either resident pupil units or pupil units served when calculating their levy ratio.  Here is the press release outlining the proposal:  Get your billion back, Minnesota!

The pace will be picking up in the next two weeks as the first committee deadline is March 6.  That likely means some night meetings to get as much legislation through their policy committees by this deadline.  As I said above in my discussion of the proposed constitutional amendment, missing the deadline isn't fatal, but it usually puts the subject in the legislative equivalent of the intensive care unit.  I hope to provide more insight as things take shape.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

First Week in the Books.  The 2020 Legislative Session began on Tuesday, February 11, and while things aren't off to a rollicking start (I expect the rollicking to begin shortly), the differing priorities between the two legislative bodies are taking shape.  It's difficult to know where these lines will land in terms of the K-12 portion of the budget, but the House of Representatives has proposed a significant investment in early childhood education with $190 earmarked for scholarships for children between the ages of 0 and 3 and another $22 million in one-time money for child care provider support.  The proposal also calls for a continuation of the 4,000 pre-kindergarten slots funding through the School Readiness Plus program, which costs an additional $60 million.  There's no word yet on how the Senate will react to this proposal, but there have been no indications that this will be a high priority in the Senate, where the proposed income tax cut on Social Security benefits looks to be taking center stage.

Here are two MPR articles on the House Early Education proposal:

MN House Democrats seek more early childhood funding (MPR, 2/6)

House Democrats want to spend surplus on early childhood (MPR, 2/13)

Here is a link to the Senate's Priority List.  The story is more than a month old and the only education item mentioned is that of Opportunity Scholarships:

Minnesota Senate GOP rolls out its 2020 agenda (StarTribune, 1/13)

Item of Conversation #1.  While talk at the Legislature regarding the proposed constitutional amendment being aggressively advocated by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neil Kashkari and retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page hasn't picked up yet, it will likely enter the debate at some juncture.  As mentioned in the article linked above outlining the priorities of the Minnesota Senate majority, this item was absent from their to-do list.  Majority Leader Gazelka's early skepticism has waned a bit, but it still likely faces an uphill battle on that side of the legislative street (not that it will be any less steep in the House's wing of the Capitol).  But that doesn't mean there hasn't been activity on the part of the proponents.  Both President Kashkari and Justice Page have been making the rounds in the Minnesota Senate Building and the State Office Building and that will likely continue up until the committee deadlines (and perhaps beyond).

Here are links to two recent articles regarding the effort:

Minnesota business leaders launch push for constitutional amendment on education (StarTribune, 2/11)

What’s happening with the Page-Kashkari proposal for a constitutional right to ‘quality public education’ (MinnPost, 2/14)

Stay tuned on this one.

Item of Conversation #2 (Civics, Civics, Civics).  One education area that will be discussed is that of civics.  Much has been said about the lack of basic knowledge of government and political life exhibited by today's high school students and that will also enter into the discussion this session.  The Senate Education Funding and Policy Committee held a hearing the week before session and took testimony from nearly 20 citizen groups outlining their concerns about the state of civics education in Minnesota (and the rest of the country).  Minnesota currently requires that students take the 50 question citizenship test, but passing it is not a requirement for graduation.  Legislation has been introduced that would not change that, but would require districts to report the percentage of students that passed the test.  Senate Education Funding and Policy Chair Carla Nelson is the author of the Senate bill that was introduced on Thursday (Representative Dean Urdahl is the House author of the yet-to-be-introduced bill in the House), so the bill is likely to be heard.

Here is a link to the bill:  SF 2964

Below is an editorial from the StarTribune regarding the bill and their take on the state of civics education in Minnesota.

Legislature should make civics education a priority for schools

Equalization Bill Introduced.  HF 3171--SEE's 2020 Equalization Bill--has been introduced.  The House author is Representative John Huot, who represents the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district.  Senator Carla Nelson will be carrying the Senate companion, which will likely be introduced on Thursday, February 20.

The mechanics of the bill are straightforward.  The equalization factor was increased last session for taxes payable in 2020 and HF 3171 would increase it further and then index the equalizing factor to 125% of the statewide average referendum market value per resident pupil unit.  The cost of the bill is $40 million per year in property tax relief to districts with referendum market value per resident pupil unit of 125% of the statewide average.  Currently, 125% of the statewide average is approximately $750,000 of referendum market value per resident pupil unit.

Here is a link to HF 3171:  HF 3171

Monday, January 20, 2020

Update on Proposed Constitutional Amendment.  Last Monday (1/13), a forum on the proposed constitutional amendment was held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to give proponents an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind the proposal and the need for it.  It was a star-studded day and the panels and the keynote address from Attorney General Keith Ellison were energetic and insightful.  Attorney General Ellison's address was especially powerful and hit on a number of key points outlining the need for change.

There are a lot of reasonable arguments for the amendment, but one I am having trouble getting my head around is that the education clause in the Minnesota Constitution hasn't been changed since 1857.  That's certainly true, but I don't know if that, in and of itself, is a reason to amend the Constitution.  Constitutions aren't documents to be trifled with and while change may be in order, the fact that the education clause hasn't been amended to this point in Minnesota history.

From my vantage point, the primary change is moving from the idea of a "system" of education to a student-based fundamental right.  The fundamental right to an education in Minnesota was established by the Skeen decision, but the proposed amendment would formalize that in the new language.  

Another change would spring from the need to define "quality" in the proposed amendment.  Most education funding litigation deals with adequate and/or equitable funding and there's over fifty years of state court law through which courts have become comfortable with measuring state systems against those standards.  Moving to "quality" would require courts to grapple with a new paradigm and that might (and I stress "might") require a round or two of litigation for the court to develop a constitutional definition of "quality."  Another aspect of "quality" is that it could reach into areas not traditionally thought of as open to litigation.  I think of teacher licensure as an example.

Here are a couple of other resources to consult as discussion of the proposed Constitutional amendment ensues.  Former St. Cloud school board member and school litigation expert Jerry von Korff blogs on education issues and he has two insightful entries on the current effort to amend the Minnesota Constitution.  His blog can be found at:

jvonkorff on Education

Here is a link to the Skeen v. Minnesota decision.  I was looking for a more user-friendly on-line document, but this is the best I could do.  If you scroll down, you can see Justice Page's dissent, much of which is echoed in his comments on the proposed Constitutional amendment.

Skeen v. Minnesota

Congrats to Dr. Deb Henton.  North Branch superintendent and SEE Executive Board member Dr. Deb Henton has been named the new Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, succeeding Dr. Gary Amoroso, who will be retiring on June 30.  Dr. Henton will be sorely missed for her work with SEE and I know the folks in North Branch feel the same way.  Her contributions to SEE as a member of the Executive Board, a consistent participant on the Legislative Committee, and as the organization's Secretary have been considerable and crucial to our success.  Her record as superintendent is also superlative as she guided North Branch during challenging times.  I know I speak for everyone involved with SEE when I wish her the best as she takes on her next challenge.

I guess this pic says it all as out-going MASA Executive Director Gary Amoroso gives in-coming Executive Director Deb Henton her Superintendent of the Year award back in 2018.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Getting Started in 2020.  There's probably not a more appropriate day to kick off blogging for 2020 than Elvis Presley's 85th birthday (we know from the World Weekly News that he's still alive, so have a good one Elvis!).  In honor of the day, here's a pic to mark the celebration.

While it wasn't a work by Elvis, the Legislature is getting ready to "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" with their convening a little more than a month from now on Tuesday, February 11.  The November budget forecast was positive with just over an additional billion on the plus side of the bottom line going into the 2020 session.  The outlook for the next biennium is also positive, with a projected surplus of approximately $700 million beyond inflation available.  

The positive economic picture will certainly fuel discussion during the 2020 session (Duh!).  There will be a push by some to fund programs that fell by the wayside during the waning days of the 2019 session along with advocacy for tax cuts.  Seeing it is not an official budget year (it seems that in recent years, every year is a budget year), there will likely be resistance to pursuing any spending that will have implications for the next biennium.  That probably means another adventure in loggerheads even though agreement on a significant-sized bonding bill is very likely.

So, buckle up!  With a month to go before the live verbal ammunition starts to fly, now is a great time to contact your legislators and tell them your story.  There's still time to get them out to your school sites to see first-hand what your needs--funding and otherwise--are.

Constitutional Amendment Chatter.  Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neil Kashkari are proposing an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would replace the current education clause.  The current education clause reads as:

UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

The proposed language would read as follows:

EQUAL RIGHT TO QUALITY PUBLIC EDUCATION. All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.

As the organization whose members largely composed the plaintiffs in the Skeen v. Minnesota lawsuit, SEE obviously has great interest in this effort.  SEE (then ASGSD) considered pursuing a constitutional amendment after the Skeen decision was reversed in favor of the state at the Supreme Court level, but that path was not chosen and instead, it was decided to concentrate on legislative efforts to enhance the equalization programs that were enacted in the early-1990s in the interregnum between the decision in favor of the plaintiffs--a set of individual ASGSD members--and the reversal of that decision by the Supreme Court in favor of the State and a set of intervening school districts. 

First off, it's great to see the term "fundamental right" in the proposed language.  The fundamental right to an education in Minnesota was established by Skeen, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction to formalize that language.  Further, the proposed language does add more structure to the current clause by speaking to the need for "skills."  What gives me pause (at least at the moment) is the mention of uniform achievement standards as set by the state.  Minnesota's achievement gap is clearly a major issue and directing resources to close that gap should be among, if not paramount in, the state's top education funding and policy goals.  My concern is that if we continue to concentrate solely on test scores as an indicator of educational equity, it remains an incomplete picture of what is required in terms of the "skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society" as mentioned in the proposed amendment.  I am curious to see what the proponents of the amendment see as the structure to deliver these standards and whether these standards are solely academic.

I am also curious about how this effort dovetails (or not) with the current litigation discussions going on in St. Cloud.  That effort also centers on the notion of a fundamental right to a quality education and the current lack of funding to assure that fundamental right.  Further, given the working group convened by the Minnesota Department of Education with the goal of revamping Minnesota's education funding formulas, I will be curious to see if talk of the proposed amendment has any influence on those discussions.

I think the bottom line is that Skeen was filed over 30 years ago and the final Supreme Court decision (of which Justice Page was in dissent) and there have been seismic shifts in the state's demography and population distribution since then.  Given those changes, a discussion of updating the Minnesota Constitution is in order.  There are always questions as to where the discussion will head and it's always important to remember that the Legislature will retain considerable leeway in deciding how to work under any new constitutional framework, so changing the constitution won't bring current efforts on the level and distribution of funding (and delivery systems) to a screeching halt.

All this said, I think it is incumbent upon all sectors of the education enterprise to monitor this effort and find ways to provide input and get answers.

Here is a link to a webpage that contains a lot of information about this effort.

A constitutional amendment to transform education in Minnesota

Below is a link to the StarTribune story on the proposed amendment.

To close Minnesota's achievement gap, two leaders propose amending state Constitution