Thursday, February 28, 2008

Don't Fear the Reaper (Well, Maybe Fear him Some). The budget news is in and it certainly isn't good. I suppose one can take a bit of heart from the fact that the revenue shortfall did not reach a billion dollars for the current biennium (at $935 million, close, but no cigar), but the worsening of the budget situation by $562 million is not the kind of news anyone was hoping for as the session wears on. This is certainly going to complicate matters, as it is going to be extremely difficult to fashion a solution that is palatable to all, not to mention the partisan cards that are going to be played in the development of any solution.

Minnesota Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson was the bearer of the bad budget news as he explained the state's fiscal woes. Revenue collections are down by $530 million, with $313 of that coming from from falling income tax receipts. A large part of that problem is generated by the falling value of investment portfolios and the resulting reduction in capital gains tax receipts. Corporate tax receipts fell by another $139 million since November and are now $456 million below the end-of-session estimate. State economist Tom Stinson (pictured at the right) provided detailed analysis during the formal presentation.

The one surprise to me was the way the word "recession" was tossed about with relative ease during the presentation. The budget performance estimates provided by Global Insight--the company that provides the state with its economic performance statistics--is predicting a short recession, lasting for the first two quarters of 2008. This recession not only affects the current biennium, but also causes problems in the 2010-2011 biennium. That projected shortfall now sits at $1.086 billion. By law, the Legislature has to balance not only the current biennial budget, but the budget for the "out years" as well. This may prove to be the more complicated task before the Legislature, as it will be impossible to use one-time money or reserve funds to solve the longer term budget problem.

Minnesota Department of Finance Link with February Forecast Documents:

Molnau Ousted. It looks like another nail in bipartisanship's coffin as the Senate, on a straight party-line vote, voted not to approve Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau as Commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. It is too early in the day to gauge reaction to the Senate's action, but my guess it will pretty much follow partisan lines. It will be interesting to see who the Governor taps to fill the role as the Department of Transportation Commissioner.

The Bad Penny Opera. German-American composer Kurt Weill wrote "The Threepenny Opera" in 1928 and Education Minnesota looks to be writing "The Bad Penny Opera" in 2008 as it brings the mandatory school employee health insurance pool bill back before the Legislature this session. There are several changes in the bill--principally that the pool will generate its own reserves for the first two years through premiums before it becomes self-insured--that make the bill appear different, at least on its face.

The bill creating the pool--SF 2747 (Betzold) was slated to be heard today in the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, but time constraints prevented that from happening. The bill will be heard next Tuesday evening.

I want to make it clear that I don't have a problem with Education Minnesota bringing this back again. There is clearly a segment of their membership that strongly believes that something resembling this approach is necessary to help combat skyrocketing premium costs. The question remains as to whether this is approach will achieve that goal.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Busy Day in St. Paul. It was a long and busy day for those of us who follow education issues at the Capitol. The day started with a spirited hearing in the Senate E-12 Budget Division chaired by Senator LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Thief River Falls). The only bill heard today was Senator Tom Saxhaug's (DFL-Grand Rapids) SF 3125. SF 3125 would add an additional 2% to the general education basic formula for the 2008-2009 school year and would also fully fund the special education formula. Even with last year's infusion of revenue, the special education formula is underfunded by over 10%. Part of this funding shortfall is due to the change from funding on a two-year lag to funding on a current year basis, but it also appears that special education needs are outstripping funding as well.

Testimony for the bill was provided by the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse (shown at the right). From left to right, they are: Mary Cecconi (war), Sam Walseth (death), Scott Croonquist (strife), and me (pestilence). Seriously, each of us took an angle on the current funding crisis and I believe we made a strong case for increased funding for next school year.

I want to thank SEE membership for providing input to the survey that Deb Griffiths distributed early yesterday. 45 of 61 SEE members answered the survey and the results were eye-opening. Of the 45 respondents, 40 are either making cuts or reducing their fund balance in the year ahead and 20 are doing both. This is clear evidence that the system is underfunded and that the passage of an emergency funding bill is absolutely essential this session.

Steve Dickinson and Chris Hunter from Brainerd were also at the hearing. Hunter (pictured at the right with Dickinson, Chris is on the right) is a media specialist at Riverside Elementary in the Brainerd School District and he provided some extremely compelling testimony regarding the cuts that Brainerd will be facing as it prepares for next school year. Testimony from the 30,000 foot level, which describes aggregate statewide situations can be helpful in outlining a problem, but nothing hits home better than testimony that describes what funding shortages mean in the classroom and for students. So, thanks Chris, for making the dire funding situation more real in the Legislature's eyes.

Link to SF 3125:

The remainder of the hearing was devoted to a presentation of Minnesota's Promise. Most of you are familiar with Minnesota's Promise, a joint venture of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and the University of Minnesota. The proposal was presented by Dr. Charlie Kyte, the MASA Executive Director, and Dr. Kent Pekel, the Executive Director of the Consortium for Postsecondary Academic Success at the University of Minnesota. Pekel is shown on the left talking with Senator Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake) after the hearing. (No, he wasn't dancing the hitch-hiker.) Minnesota's Promise provides a bold vision for the future of education in Minnesota and could provide a workable blueprint.

Link to Minnesota's Promise:

Afternoon in the House. The House K-12 Funding Division heard:
  • HF 3206 (Rukavina): a bill that is similar to those introduced by Representative Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin) that takes the money generated through the Permanent School Fund and adds revenue--for technology in this bill--to the amount received by school districts instead of serving as an offset to the general fund contribution to K-12 funding.
  • HF 2981 (Carlson): a bill that allows intermediate school districts to borrow in anticipation of revenue payments.
  • HF 2650 (Brown): a bill that appropriates money to the Principals Leadership Institute (that appropriation was line-item vetoed by the Governor last session).
  • HF 2559 (Brown): a bill that removes the wind energy production tax from the county apportionment for school districts.
All of these bills will receive further consideration as the House's version of the omnibus education funding bill is put together this year.

The Senate ends the Day! The Senate Education Policy Committee hearing was the last piece of business in the education arena today.

The bills that received the most attention in the Senate Education Policy Committee were SF 3156 (Saltzman) and SF 2822 (Rummel).

SF 3156 is the result of an interim working group chaired by Senator Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury) and Senator Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) (shown at right listening to questions from the committee) dealing with early intervention for reading and math. The bill has ruffled a few feathers, most notably in the higher education and teacher licensure communities, as it calls for a reading instruction pre-test and training in a number of reading intervention strategies. It will be interesting to see how the discussion on this bill unfolds as the session continues.

SF 2822 is the Senate version of the report card and assessment changes arising from the working group chaired by Senator Rummel and Representative Kathy Brynaert (DFL-Mankato). The testimony in the Senate was similar to that provided in the House. Dr. David Heistad, the Director of Evaluation for the Minneapolis School District, again gave a very detailed description of what the proposed model will try to accomplish and how it is better than the current evaluation framework. Heistad did such a good job that I now understand what a trichotomous model is and how it can be used to gauge school effectiveness.

Batten Down the Hatches. The February Budget Forecast comes out tomorrow and all indications are it is going to be ugly with a capital UG. I will provide you with all the necessary links tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

There's Got to be a Morning After. Well, post-override Day 1 began with a very interesting hearing in the House Education Policy Committee. Most of the hearing time was dedicated to HF 3329 (Brynaert), which is the result of an interim working group dealing with revising the state report card and improving the measurement of student academic progress. At the left, we see Representative Brynaert (DFL-Mankato) with Dr. Geoff Maruyama, Associate Vice President for System Academic Administration in the College of Human Development and Education at the University of Minnesota, testifying before the committee.

There have been myriad problems with the school report card, especially with the star-rating system, which can produce very misleading results. The report card proposed by this legislation would rely more heavily on the measurement of student academic growth from year-to-year instead of achievement of proficiency standards.

Therein lies the rub. Jim Bartholomew, education analyst for the Minnesota Business Partnership, testified that growth models aren't necessarily a bad thing, but if they only measure "growth for growth sakes" without maintaining a proficiency standard, they are of limited use. This issue will continue to be discussed as the Legislature appears determined to put in place a system that provides a more realistic and valuable set of measurements of student achievement.

So stay tuned. The companion file for HF 3329 is SF 2882 authored by Senator Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake), which has yet to be heard in the Senate Education Committee. Rest assured, it will be soon.

Revanche! It didn't take long for the six Republicans who voted to override the Governor's veto of the transportation funding bill to feel the sting of the higher-ups in the caucus. All six were stripped of their leadership positions, mostly as the lead member of the minority caucus on various committees. This was as stern a punishment as I have witnessed in my 30-plus years of being a Capitol watcher and we'll have to see how this plays out.

StarTribune Link:

Governor's Reaction. Well, I can say I had a dream (more of a Paul Revere and the Raiders "I Had a Dream" than a Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream.") and I guess it must have been the anchovies. The Governor's press conference today pretty much dispelled my hopes that increased bipartisanship is in the offing. This is not good news in view of the fact that we'll probably be staring at a $1 billion plus revenue shortfall (with even larger revenue shortfalls projected for next biennium).

Minnesota Public Radio Link:

MN Post Link (put MN Post in your bookmarks):

Big Hearing Tomorrow. The highlight tomorrow with be in the Senate E-12 Education Budget Division when SF 3125 (Saxhaug) will be heard. SF 3125 proposes to increase the basic formula for the 2008-2009 school year by an additional 2% and fully fund the special education formula (which is funded at approximately 89% currently). They are not seeking testimony from individual school districts and instead will be seeking information from the 3 education-funding based organizations--SEE, AMSD, and MREA--and Parents United. In order to get solid information for my testimony, I had Deb Griffiths send out a call for information this morning and many of you have responded. An overwhelming number of SEE member districts--close to 90% at the latest count--will be either cutting or reducing their fund balance as they balance their budgets going into next year. Thanks to all of you for getting this information back to me so quickly.

For those of you wanting to attend the hearing, it will start at 8:30 in Room 112 of the State Capitol.

Trivia, Trivia, Trivia. I mentioned one song from my youth in this entry--"I Had a Dream" by Paul Revere and the Raiders--but the title of the first story is also a hit from 30+ years ago. NAME THAT ARTIST!
I Almost Forgot. In the hubbub surrounding yesterday's veto override, I neglected to report on the Senate Education Policy Committee hearing, which featured bills on bus safety, bus contracts, and background checks. The hearing was interrupted early in the proceedings due to the Senate's deliberations and vote on the override, so it ran a bit long.

The Legislative Auditor's report on Student Transportation has created a great amount of interest in bringing greater accountability to driver qualifications and greater consistency in the contracts school districts hold with transportation service providers. These items were the focus of SF 2988 (Olseen) and SF 3078 (Dibble).

SF 2988 sets up a system of qualifications for regular drivers of Type III vehicles (i.e. vans and cars). The regulations only apply to individuals for whom transporting students is part of their job description. In other words, administrators, teachers and coaches who drive students in these vehicles on an intermittent or non-regular basis will not be subject to increased scrutiny. Senator Rick Olseen (DFL-Harris)--pictured at the left speaking with ECM reporter T.W. Buddig after the veto override vote--has worked over the interim on this issue and it appears that something positive will happen in this area this session, as there is no direct appropriation from the state involved.

SF 3078 (Dibble) is directed more at contractors' operations and the types of information they currently disclose. Given the Legislative Auditor's stance that there is a lot of inconsistency in contracts throughout the state, some of the elements in this bill will likely pass. It is strongly supported by the Service Employees International Union.

The other bills heard SF 2804 (Rest) which calls for the use of "green" products in schools; SF 2369 (Rest) which calls for additional background checks for coaches; and SF 2597 (Saltzman) which calls for stricter teacher background checks. SF 3001 (Wiger) The Governor's education policy bill, was taken off the agenda due to the late hour.

An Alternative View. As many of you know, I'll read just about anything and thus, my admission that I do read things from the libertarian Cato Institute. Although the articles can raise my blood pressure a bit, I always find them interesting. Here is a link to Andrew Coulson's--Cato's education guy--page at the Cato website. Again, it's interesting reading and helpful in understanding many of the arguments that are leveled against public schools.


One Last Shot of the Pandemonium. Here's a shot of the Senate exiting the chamber last evening after adjourning. This was taken just moments after the veto override and you can certainly see some very happy (mostly lobbyists) and relieved (mostly legislators) people.

Monday, February 25, 2008

And the winner by knockout! Is the Legislature as it successfully overrode the Governor's veto of the transportation funding bill. It didn't look quite like this:

But I am sure to some on both sides of the fight that it feels quite a bit like this.

The result in the Senate--a 47-20 vote to override (2 votes more than what was needed)--was not unexpected, as the Senate has a 45-22 DFL majority as it is. Once the override was accomplished in the House, it was more or less a fait accompli that the Governor was going to be the loser of this little fracas.

As in the case of the House debate, there was a lot of mention of the current economic state of Minnesota and how tax increases of any type are going to hurtaverage Minnesota families as they struggle.

Senator Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing) was philosophical in citing that the fact an override was needed constituted a "failure" at some level in that the normal channels of debate and compromise did not produce a bill that met the transportation needs of Minnesota as defined by the Legislature that could gain the Governor's approval. In this event, the Legislature had no choice but to try and override the veto of a transportation bill that was a scaled-back version of last session's transportation bill, which died when the Governor's veto was not overridden on the last day of the session.

Where to from here? No one asks me for political advice much anymore. . .but that doesn't stop me from ladling it out periodically. It seems to me that no one is truly at fault here and that the system worked. The 9th grade civics text may have an outdated chart showing how a bill becomes a law, but the separation of powers are alive and well and today's result shows that a legislative body can impress its will when it makes a strong case to enough members of the legislative minority.

It seems this is where, in my opinion, the discussion should head. Both sides should respectfully say that the system has worked, that they agree to disagree about the need for the tax increase, and that everyone can move forward from this point. Hopefully (although not likely), toned-down rhetoric would lead to a level of cooperation that is going to be needed in the near future.

The budget news on Thursday is not going to be good and it would be great if the Administration and the Legislature could work together to build a package with broad support to solve what is likely to be a monster-sized problem.

The photo I chose for this installment is of Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in their famous 1938 rematch. This was not only a fight, it was a political event as tensions between Germany and the rest of Europe escalated. Further, Schmeling had knocked out Louis two years earlier and Louis, who became World Champion by defeating James "Cinderella Man" Braddock in 1937, clearly needed to defeat Schmeling to be the undisputed champion (as Braddock refused to fight Schmeling). Louis won the fight in astounding fashion and went on to an unprecedented reign as heavyweight champ (Okay. Enough boxing history.)

But later in life, Louis and Schmeling managed to settle their feud (photo below), which was no small feat given the symbolism that accompanied their athletic confrontations. All of this may seem to be another tortured analogy supplied by yours truly, but if Louis and Schmeling can close the gulf that separated them, you'd think that the Administration and the Legislature could do the same and work toward bipartisan solutions to some pretty big problems. At least that would be my hope.

Photo Credit: AP (fight)
Round One is Over. And the House, by a vote of 90-41 has successfully overridden the Governor's veto of the transportation funding bill. So at this point, the picture looks like this:

The override question is now before the Senate, where it is likely to pass with a vote or two to spare. But I'm old enough to know not to bet on a sure thing. Back with you in a few minutes.

Photo credit: BBC News
And the Bell has Rung! I'm posting this from my January through May "home away from home" in Room 315 of the State Capitol (I'm still trying to figure out why I can't get a homestead credit) and the discussion on the override of the Governor's veto of the transportation funding bill is underway. So far, it looks something like this.

Instead of fists flying, it's been rhetorical jabs and verbal uppercuts, but, at this point, both fighters are still standing and it looks like the fight will go the full 15 rounds. We're still in single figures on the speech count (which makes me wish that "rounds" of this type only lasted three minutes), so we are probably going to be here for a bit (he said sarcastically) longer. I should have more information as the day goes on and I will fill you in on the final results.

Friday, February 22, 2008

In This Corner!!!!!! Ladies and Gentlemen! Meine Dammen und Herren! Take your pick. Do you see this as . . .

Batman and Robin versus the Penguin?

Larry Henning and Handsome Harley Race (aka The Dolly Sisters) versus Andre the Giant?

Underdog and Sweet Polly versus Simon Bar Sinister?

Homer and Helper Monkey Mojo versus Ned Flanders?

"For what purpose have you put these seemingly unrelated pairings up, Lundell?" you are probably asking. "And what is 'this?'"

Look closely at each of the pictures on the left. They have two characters. And the picture on the right only has one character.

"Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm?!?" you are probably continuing to say. "Still not following. Madness is a terrible thing."

Okay, enough with the tortured analogy. Given the Governor's veto of the transportation bill, both houses of the Legislature will have to override the veto for it to become law. Both houses. As in two houses. Thus, the two characters on the left need to overwhelm the character on the right to get their way. (Boy, this sounded so much more clever when I was thinking about it this afternoon.)

So whether you see the Legislature as Homer and Helper Monkey Mojo or the Governor as Andre the Giant, in the next few days, either the one on the right or the two on the left are going to win--at least in the short term--on this issue.

Next week will be a crucial week at the Legislature. The decision will be made on this version of the transportation bill. The budget forecast will come out (and the numbers will be worse). And the first committee deadline is only three weeks, so bills are going to have to start flying through the policy committees in order to have a fighting chance of passing. In other words, after Friday, February 29, the direction of the Legislature may be pretty well set. So watch and listen closely. Okily-dokily?

See you all Monday! Have a great weekend and don't forget to write!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Day Cut Short. Not much happened in the world of education at the Capitol Thursday as the transportation bill hit the floor of the House, canceling the afternoon hearing in the House K-12 Finance Division on the task force comparing Minnesota's special education rules and statutes to federal measures.

The House took up the omnibus transportation funding bill--HF 2800--in the early afternoon. Representative Bernie Lieder (DFL-Crookston), Chair of the House Transportation Finance Division and chief author of HF 2800 offered an amendment that scaled back the bill a bit, especially as it pertains to the metro-wide sales tax for transit. The Republicans offered a variety of amendments, both to Representative Lieder's amendment and the bill as a whole, with only one passing. The Lieder amendment passed on a vote of 98-34 and the bill passed on a final vote of 89-44. The final vote on the bill is one vote short of the number needed for a successful override of the Governor's promised veto. The Senate will be taking up the bill early next week where passage is assured, although the DFL will have to hold all of its members if an override attempt is made.

(LATE BREAKING EDIT: The Senate passed the transportation package on a vote of 47-20. The bill now goes to the Governor for an expected veto, setting up the first showdown of the 2008 legislative session.)

There were Education Hearings. The House E-12 Education Policy Committee met on Thursday morning and discussed three bills: HF 2982 (Bly): a bill that would create a five-year pilot program to measure effective learning strategies in charter schools and area learning centers; HF 3292 (Dittrich): the companion file to Senator Ann Lynch's SF 2811, which would set up a new management system for the public land that comprises property for the permanent school fund; and HF 3290 (S. Peterson): a bill that would provide revenue for kindergarten assessment and transition programs.

The Senate E-12 Budget Division featured a presentation by Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren (shown at right). Commissioner Seagren outlined the Governor's priorities for the coming session, principally the increased investment in training for math and science teachers. Other programs proposed by the Governor include: increased parental involvement, greater teacher recruitment, training, and accountability, and more technology in the classroom. It will be interesting to see how these proposals fare in the days ahead.

As stated earlier, the House K-12 Finance Division hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon was cancelled.

Superintendents Meet with Governor Pawlenty. Whoever said that the phrase "distinguished superintendent" is an oxymoron obviously never ran into a set of superintendents this impressive. MASA Executive Director Charlie Kyte and the pictured posse had the opportunity to meet with the Governor today to discuss education issues, both in terms of funding and programs. There were no reports that the Governor was limping noticeably as the day wore on. Pictured (from the left) are Charlie, Brad Meeks (Farmington), Ric "Lefty" Dressen (Edina), Dennis Peterson (Minnetonka), Susan Hintz (Osseo), Dan Brooks (Sauk Centre) and Tom Westerhaus (Prior Lake). Mark Bezek (Elk River) arrived just after this picture was snapped. Roger Giroux (Anoka-Hennepin) also attended the meeting.

Budget Forecast Due Out Next Week. The February revenue forecast will be released next week and early indications are that the dire budget picture is going to become even more dire, perhaps to the point of real budget pain (as if we weren't already there). I will let you know the where's and when's of the forecast as details become available.

Alliance Meeting. The Alliance for Student Achievement met on Thursday morning and a variety of items were discussed. The date for the annual Alliance Summit has been set for October 17, the Friday of the Education Minnesota conference. The Alliance will be teaming up with EM on facilities in an effort to get more distance out of its investment. The Alliance Summit has become an extremely valuable event for educators throughout the state and I am certain the presenters at the 2008 Summit will maintain the tradition of excellence.

The Alliance 2008 platform has been finalized and will be available on the Alliance for Student Achievement website within the next few days. The Alliance website can be found at:

SEE Regional Meetings. The first in a series of five SEE regional meetings will be held in St. Cloud on Friday, February 29. If you haven't made arrangements to get to a regional meeting yet, please get your registration in. There will be a lot to talk about!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bus Tragedy Claims Four in Cottonwood. You've undoubtedly seen the coverage in your local media, but I just wanted to chime in and express my deepest sympathy for the entire Cottonwood community and the Lakeview Public School District regarding the accident that claimed four lives yesterday in Southwestern Minnesota. It's times like these that remind us all that regardless of how safe school transportation is--and it is very safe--there are times when accidents involving school buses are going to involve fatalities. It is extremely rare for these fatalities to occur to the children riding on the bus, but it can and does happen.

School transportation safety was going to receive attention at the Capitol this session, largely due to another crash last fall that involved a van carrying a special education student in which the driver and the passenger both were killed. The Office of the Legislative Auditor's report on School District Transportation Study has been heard in both bodies and several bills dealing with transportation safety and other operational aspects have been introduced.

Much of the transportation safety discussion since has revolved around the qualifications and background checks for those who are driving Type III vehicles (vans and cars), whether in the case of a district-owned or contracted vehicle. Senator Rick Olseen (DFL-Harris) and Representative Karla Bigham (DFL-Cottage Grove) will be carrying legislation that will deal with the Type III issue. Senator Olseen's bill will be heard in the Senate Education Policy Committee on Monday, February 25, at 3:00 PM in Room 15 of the State Capitol.

This crash will almost certainly resurrect discussion of seat belts on school buses. Although the final report on the crash is months away and it is unclear whether or not seat belts would have provided meaningful protection to those students who died, the issue will surface. The views on seat belts are quite divergent, ranging from being a "must" to comprising an expensive and largely ineffective means of student protection. I will keep you in the loop as discussions on school bus safety take place.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Lakeview community during this difficult time.

Coverage on crash in Marshall Independent:

Bus Crash Photo Credit: AP

Dueling Librarians. The county and regional library systems faced off in the Senate Education Policy Committee today. Senator Ann Lynch (DFL-Rochester) has introduced SF 2821, which mandates that all libraries in Minnesota be provided access to the electronic library for Minnesota databases regardless of whether or not they belong to a regional library system. Needless to say, the regional library systems don't think this is a good idea and oppose the bill. The bill was recommended to pass on a divided voice vote and I can tell you this: Don't get tangled up in a feud among librarians. It looked like a scene right out of The Godfather (okay, I'm a little sarcastic today)!

Dangerous (or Potentially Dangerous) Dogs Revisited. After attending the hearing on the Dangerous Dog bill yesterday, I thought I better warn everybody to be on the look out for this extremely dangerous dog! This is Sunny (whom I periodically call "Budd Johnson" in honor of the legendary jazz saxophonist who was the subject of the Ben Webster song "Budd Johnson" which is available upon request), the latest addition to the Lundell household. As you can tell from this picture, he has the potential to be extremely dangerous! Look at those yellow eyes! We've had him for almost two weeks and he's getting the hang of housetraining, so next week, it's on to calculus and particle physics. I think he will be able to master those subjects provided he can bring his chew toys to class with him. If worse comes to worse this session, I may have to bring him to the Capitol for those last few late nights. No legislative ankle or pants-leg will be safe from this untamed beast! Of course, he's going to be going to obedience school soon and I don't know how well a tamed beast would do as a lobbyist.

A Chilling Report. Isabel Sawhill of The Brookings Institution and John E. Morton of The Pew Charitable Trust have written a very interesting, and troubling, report about upward mobility in the United States today. The report, "Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Mobility in America" points out how uneven access to high quality education in the United States today will likely have an adverse effect on upward mobility. On face value, this constitutes a "no kidding Sherlock" statement, but in an era where honing human capital has become in many ways more important than the preservation of physical capital, this report is another reminder of how we must invest more in education to ensure the system is both adequately and equitably funded. Doing less will only undermine an economy and society that is based on a foundation of a strong middle class.

Pioneer Press article on report:


Bring Your Helmet. Tomorrow's House K-12 Finance Division promises to be an interesting and tense hearing, as the results of the task force appointed this summer to look at differences in Minnesota and federal special education laws and rules will be presented. This has been a very contentious process, as there have been a number of very close votes on the task force to determine how to proceed. Word has it is that the special education advocacy interests (parents and disability organizations) are extremely disappointed in how things turned out and will be descending en masse tomorrow to make the case why Minnesota has traditionally gone beyond federal law in serving special education populations and how the effort to scale back this tradition will put the economic progress of students with identified educational challenges at risk.

But going beyond federal law is only one of the frustrating issues in terms of the state's special education posture. What is more troubling is the Minnesota Department of Education's penchant for making rules when there has been no legislative authorization to do so. Further, the Department has used the complaint process and policy memorandums to establish statewide policy. This is simply wrong.

There may be valid reasons to exceed federal law in some instances, but I cannot think of a reason why the Department should be able to simply set rules without legislative direction. There may be times that the Legislature will require a nudge or input from the Department as to why rule-making authority is needed for a certain practice or program, but legislative approval should still be required before state special education regulations can be changed.

Not to be sardonic, but I already kid about having to take the "How a Bill Becomes a Law" page out of the 9th grade civics text. I don't want to have to urge the removal of the page on "Checks and Balances between the Branches of Government." The Legislature determines the "whats" of government policy. The Executive Branch, while having input (and plenty of it) in the development of those "whats," once the direction is set, must concern itself solely on the "hows" of implementing the prescribed programs and formulas to meet those goals.

So, if you want to witness an interesting legislative hearing, be in Room 5 of the State Office Building tomorrow at 2:15 PM. It may get a bit testy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another Busy Day. Session is only a week old and things are already poppin'. It was another full day of committee meetings with the Senate E-12 Funding Division joining the action with their first meeting of the year.

The day led off bright and early with the House Education Policy Committee meeting at 8:00 AM. The bulk of the committee's time was spent on the subject of early childhood education. The first bill up--HF 2983 (S. Peterson)--would establish an Office of Early Childhood Education. Two veritable Minnesota all-stars testified in favor of the bill. Pictured on the left are Dr. Art Rolnick, Vice-President and Director of Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Representative Sandra Peterson (DFL-New Hope). Additional all-star testimony was provided by Dr. Karen Cadigan, Director of Outreach and Public Policy at the Center for Early Education and Development at University of Minnesota.

Concern was expressed that, in its original form, the bill would create a new level of bureaucracy that would impede educational progress and restrict parent choice. A major amendment to the bill offered by bill author Representative Peterson allayed many of those concerns and the bill was passed as amended and re-referred to the Early Childhood Learning Finance Division.

The House Education Policy Committee also heard the last reports from working groups that deliberated over the interim. In her report regarding the work of the K-12 Financing working group, Representative Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) outlined the progress made on developing a comprehensive funding reform bill modeled after much of the work done by PS Minnesota. Although this bill will undoubtedly depart from the details contained in the PS Minnesota work, it will likely remain true to the basic framework outlined in that report.

The Senate E-12 Funding Division spent its time discussing bonding requests in the same manner as the House K-12 Funding Division did last week. Delegations from the Osseo School District and the Anoka-Hennepin School District were present to discuss proposals they have developed.

The House K-12 Finance Division met this afternoon and finalized their hearings on bonding proposals. Upon completion of bill presentations, division members were asked to rank the projects heard in the division and rank them in order of their individual priorities. The individual recommendations will be tallied to create the division's set of priorities that will be forwarded to the Capital Investment Finance Division. The Capital Investment Finance Division, chaired by Representative Alice Hausman (D-St. Paul) will assemble the House version of the 2008 bonding bill. At right, Representatives Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake) and Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) are working on their individual project priorities.

The day was not without its lighter moments. I ran into SEE superintendents Larry Peterson from Eden Valley-Watkins, Scott Staska from Rocori, and Scott Thielman during the day. As expected, they were working their legislators on a number of issues. At the left is Larry Peterson visiting with Representative Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City). I can assure you that Larry's arguments were not nearly as fuzzy as my picture of him is. It's always great to run into SEE member administrators and school board members at the Capitol, so don't hesitate to tell me if you are coming down.

In another highlight, I was early for the House K-12 Finance Division hearing and happened across the House Public Safety and Civil Justice Committee, where HF 2906 (Paymar) was being discussed. HF 2906 seeks to tighten up the regulation of dangerous dogs. Arguments were getting a bit hot as committee time ran out, so I guess one could say that the bill about dogfights turned into a bit of a dogfight.

Finally, as I was setting up a camera shot this morning, I accidentally snapped this one instead. The good news is, it's in focus. The bad news? It's my shoe. Catch you all tomorrow.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy President's Day. It sounds like yesterday was Vice-President's Day with speculation over who Senator McCain's choice will be for the second spot on his ticket with our Governor meriting considerable consideration among the coterie of cognoscenti who populate the Sunday morning opinion media. But enough speculation, let's get back to the indoor sport that has more of an immediate effect on our well-being: the 2008 Legislative Session.

President's Day may constitute a day off at the post office and the bank, but not at the Legislature, where there were both floor sessions and committee meetings. Two of these meetings were of note to the education community. The first of these meetings was the Senate Education Policy Committee, where three bills proposing changes to the permanent school fund were discussed. Pictured above is Senator Kathy Saltzman (flanked by Senator Sandy Rummel and Senate staff member Eric Nauman), who got the opportunity to chair the committee while Chairman Wiger presented two of the three bills before the panel

First, a little history of the Permanent School Fund. The basis of the Permanent School Fund comes from the General Land Ordinance of 1785 Uniform Survey System, when sections of each township were granted to the township for purposes of education. In Minnesota, these sections were numbers 16 and 36 in each township (there are 36 sections to a township--6 x 6). The land is granted to the states with 5% of land sales going into a trust fund. The state then plays the role of the trustee. In Minnesota, the trust fund lands are managed by the State Board of Investment. Revenue for the land go into the Permanent School Fund. The fund is not spent, but the interest generated is on-going revenue for school districts throughout Minnesota.

However, this generates no new money for Minnesota school districts. Instead, the interest revenue is distributed to school districts as part of the general education basic amount and a corresponding amount is subtracted from the state general fund investment toward the general education basic formula. In other words, the permanent school fund revenue sent to schools reduces the amount coming from the state general fund.

Three bills before the Legislature seek to make interest revenue generated from the Permanent School Fund an addition to school funding instead of a general fund offset. These bills are SF 2392 (Wiger)/HF 2973 (Dittrich), SF 2422 (Wiger)/HF 2975 (Dittrich), and SF 2811 (Lynch)/No House Companion.

SF 2392/HF 2973 would remove the revenue subtraction and make the revenue generated from management of the Permanent School Fund additional revenue for districts and dedicate the new funding to technology. SF 2422/HF 2975 would eliminate the Permanent School Fund subtraction with no revenue dedication. Instead, revenue would go to districts without any strings. SF 2811 would replace management of the Permanent School Fund by the State Board of Investment with a newly-established board to provide accountability and oversight.

Pictured at the left testifying in favor of these changes are (from left to right) MSBA lobbyist Grace Schwab, International Falls Superintendent and Permanent School Fund Advisory Task Force member Don Langan, and Senator Chuck Wiger, the author of SFs 2392 and 2422. Final action was not taken during Monday's hearing, but this will likely be discussed throughout the session and may be a way for school districts to receive additional revenue, though probably not in time for the next school year. The language and status of these measures can be obtained at the following links:

SF 2392/HF 2973:

SF 2422/HF 2975:

SF 2811:

These measures are ones that merit our support as we move through this session. There were a number of valuable handouts distributed at the hearing and I will try to find a way to get them into your hands so that you can use them when working with your legislators.

The House Education Finance and Economic Competitiveness Finance Division chaired by Representative Mary Murphy heard two reports from the Office of the Legislative Auditor this afternoon. The first was on the JOBZ program and the second on Student Transportation Safety.

The report on School District Student Transportation highlights a number of areas where the Legislative Auditor believes there are shortcomings in the current system. Many of these shortcomings fall with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Department of Education, but school districts undergo considerable scrutiny in the report as well.

The area of school district operations that will likely receive the most attention in the session ahead is that of drivers of Type III vehicles (vans and cars). Type III drivers are largely unregulated under the current system and a number of new requirements for these drivers will be discussed and it is my expectation that some of these requirements will be enacted.

Text of the School District Student Transportation Report can be read and/or downloaded at:

One item in the report not directly related to student safety, but interesting nonetheless is the approximately $40 million gap statewide between school district transportation expenditures and school district transportation revenue. In other words, if you can't readily charge fees or pass a referendum for transportation costs, you are probably in the soup. Food, or I guess soup, for thought.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wrapping Up Week #1. The week came to a quiet end, as most legislators took the opportunity to duck out of town after Thursday's proceedings. That is probably the last time they are going to get to do that, as the schedule is going to ramp up next week. The first committee deadline is a mere month away, meaning some committees will have only eight meetings before then.

The week ended with an interesting meeting in the House Property Tax Relief and Local Sales Tax Division, where the Office of the Legislative Auditor discussed their recently-released study: "Green Acres" and Agricultural Land Preservation Programs. Jody Hauer of the Office of the Legislative Auditor (Pictured at left, and no, the meeting wasn't held in a cave. That's just my subpar photography skills at play.) provided a very complete description of the "Green Acres" program, the property tax relief it provides to farmland owners, and its effectiveness in preserving agricultural lands. As it turns out, the program does provide significant property tax relief that is of great assistance to farmers who want to continue to farm as suburban develop creeps ever closer to their property. However, the program does not appear to have a significant effect on the preservation of farmland. Continuing development and its effect on agricultural property is an issue for a number of Schools for Equity in Education members, so I would urge those of you who are interested to download a copy of this report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor's website. I have provided you with a link to that site along with a link to a StarTribune article regarding the release of this report.

"Green Acres" report:

Star Tribune article:

The expected clash between the Governor in the Legislature should occur soon, as it is likely that the omnibus transportation bill prepared by the Legislature will be on the Governor's desk no later than the week after next. Given the Governor's "red pen" comments during his State of the State Address, the Legislature's transportation package is heading toward near-certain veto (with near certain meaning about 99.999999999999.....%). So stay tuned. I hope to keep you up-to-date through the blog and other means.

Until then, have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Moving Right Along. I promised you yesterday that I would give you my impressions of the State of the State Address and here they are. About midway through the Governor's speech, I started thinking, "This doesn't sound like a State of the State Address. It sounds more like a eulogy." Now stay with me here. I don't intend that comment as a slam against the Governor. William Faulkner, describing the actions of one of his characters, explained the difference between a "monument" and a "footprint," in that a "monument" tells you where you've been and a "footprint" tells you where you are going when you start up again. And in that sense, the address had a eulogy feel to me as we celebrate 150 years of Minnesota history and move toward the future.

Some very real challenges stand in front of us all as we define Minnesota's next steps going into the future. Can we--and should we--maintain all the strong Minnesota traditions we have constructed? If we discard some of these traditions, which ones should be move on without? In the area of education, what changes do we have to make to remain competitive? How much will that cost? Given new costs, how is that revenue generated? New taxes? Cuts in other government services? Each of these questions begs a thorough review of how we develop and deliver government services in Minnesota and while the Governor's address dealt mainly with the narrow specifics of what will be addressed during the 2008 Legislative Session, there were some interesting suggestions--including the creation of a commission to study the state's tax structure--that may provide valuable input as we attempt, as a state, to move ahead.

The Governor addressed education relatively late in the address, but did talk about two or three distinct initiatives he would like to see get greater attention. The creation of a post-tenure review for teachers, more money for the regional math and science academies, increased recruitment of teachers--including through alternative licensure pathways--to improve teacher quality, and greater emphasis on the use of technology in instruction are all subjects the Governor touched upon. The big disappointment, though not unexpected, was the Governor's failure to mention the tough financial straits in which many districts find themselves and how increased reliance on the referendum is becoming a very real problem for both school districts and taxpayers.

The State of the State Address in audio, video, and print can be accessed at:

On to the Capitol. Hearings are commencing at a rapid rate. For those lobbyists thinking there was going to be a first week lull, it's been (doing my best Gomer Pyle imitation): "Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!" The House has had a pretty much full slate of activities and they aren't working simply on minor pieces of legislation. The Legislature plans to have a transportation package--including a gas tax increase and metro area sales tax increase for transit--to the Governor in the next couple of weeks. The House and Senate both passed HF 2285, the 3/8 cent sales tax increase for cultural and environmental preservation constitutional amendment ballot question on Thursday (by votes of 85-46 in the House and 46-17 in the Senate). This measure now goes directly to the November, 2008, ballot.

The House Education Policy Committee met this morning. One of the highlights of the meeting were the reports from the working groups that met over the summer. Representative Denise Dittrich (D-Champlin) (pictured at right) reported on her High School Redesign working group. The work of her group dovetails readily with the P-16 and P-20 efforts that are being discussed along with a number of other proposed reforms. Dr. Rodger Bybee of the Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS) , former Northfield resident and Carleton College professor provided some very solid insight about science education needs facing students throughout the United States. Dr. Bybee stressed the importance of educating all students and how high school redesign will play a major role in that effort. At the risk of appearing like I am cherry-picking statements from Dr. Bybee's testimony, he was straightforward in stressing that more money is going to be needed to infuse the kinds of reforms we need into the educational system.

More information on BSCS can be found at their homepage:

I will have more comments tomorrow, as the House Property Tax Division will be discussing the Legislative Auditor's report on the Green Acres program. It should be an interesting meeting (Okay. Okay. I'm a policy geek. I admit it.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle. Yes, the Legislature is back in session in what promises to be a whirlwind of activity on both the policy and political fronts. Unfortunately, the latter may trump the former in terms of making progress in a number of crucial issue areas.

The first issue that is going to receive attention is transportation. The House and Senate majorities are assembling a major transportation funding package that includes an increase in the gas tax of 7.5 cents (phased-in over the next year and with the 2.5 cents being phased-out as highway building bonds are retired) and a sales tax increase for metropolitan area transit. The fireworks over the bill are already starting, as seen in this article from the Star Tribune:

The other big issue is going to be the bonding bill, which, when all is said and done, may reach a record level of $1 billion (or as Dr. Evil would say "one beeeeeel-iun" dollars). A lot of early-session committee time is dedicated to possible bonding projects and the Osseo school district was one of a handful presenting their proposal (HF 2708--a bill that would create a North Hennepin Family Center to provide a wide range of family and education-related services) to the House K-12 Funding Division on Tuesday afternoon. Superintendent Susan Hintz (pictured with HF 2708 Chief Author Representative Deb Hilstrom (D-Brooklyn Center) and Osseo School Board Member Lin Myszkowski) did an excellent job outlining the student needs that could be met by such a center.

Another education issue that is going to be discussed thoroughly during the 2008 Legislative Session is that of facilities. Representatives Tim Faust (D-Mora) and John Benson (D-Minnetonka) have held several meetings throughout the state discussing this issue. These meetings have taken the shape of informal idea-sharing/brainstorming sessions instead of formal legislative hearings and it's provided an opportunity for discussion of some of the major facilities challenges currently facing school districts. I was honored to be one of those invited to share my perspectives at the Mora meeting. That particular meeting looked like a SEE subcommittee as staff from Mora, Princeton, Pine City, Hutchinson, and Sauk Rapids-Rice (plus I know I'm forgetting somebody) were there.

I would like to really offer my thanks to Brian Mohr, the Director of Building, Grounds, and Student Transportation for the Hutchinson school district, for his tireless efforts on pushing the school facilities issue to the forefront. The picture at the left shows Brian with Representatives Faust and Benson along with Ehlers and Associates representative Gary Olson (who needs no introduction) continuing the facilities discussion after the Mora hearing. School facilities, as we all know, often have to take a back seat to more pressing student needs. With money increasingly tight in school districts throughout the state, the problem only becomes more keen. Hopefully, as comprehensive funding reform is discussed, we will be able to include funding provisions that will spare school districts from having to pit buildings against students when making budget decisions.

That's it for this entry. I'll be back with my view on the State of the State Address tomorrow and perhaps, just perhaps, an update on the Podcast Project!