Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Me Oh My. How Time Does Fly. That's not only the title of the late John Hartford's greatest hits collection (I give it four stars out of four, five stars out of five, six stars. . . .I think you get the picture), that's the state of affairs these days at the Capitol as well. It was "go, go, go" from 8 AM until after 9 PM in the education world, as education committee hearings and other hearings at which issues of interest to the education community were heard.

The day began in the House Education Committee, where the main item of discussion was HF 3472 authored by Committee Chair Carlos Mariani. HF 3472 is the House companion to SF 3151 (Torres Ray), which was heard Monday in the Senate Education Policy Committee. As in the case of the Senate hearing, a strong case was made as to why more cohesive strategies may be needed to address the achievement gap in a more systematic manner. The bill does require each district to do planning on how to address the gap and that will certainly lead to more work by administrative staff, which is a tall order given the fact that the staff needed to provide the support may be on the chopping block for cuts or, in the case of many districts including a great number of SEE districts, does not exist.

At the same time, this bill dovetails nicely with the efforts of PS Minnesota and those calling for comprehensive funding reform. In order to create the wide base of support needed to generate true and lasting interest in investing more in the current education system, we absolutely must show how opportunity for and achievement of students will be improved. It is incumbent on our system itself to recognize where we can do better and how additional revenue will provide us with the chance to develop workable solutions to the challenges we face as we prepare students for the 21st century global economy (there's that phrase again).

Not all was sweetness and light in the discussion of this bill, however. Dr. Karen Effrem, lobbyist for EdWatch nee Maple River Coalition (pictured at right) voiced her concern with the bill. In her testimony, Dr. Effrem expressed skepticism that more planning would solve this problem and that the roots of the achievement gap lie with cultural changes and unsound educational practices that have eroded achievement levels for many students. I am not going to "dog" Dr. Effrem, who I have always found to be a poised, polite, and passionate proponent for EdWatch policies (Man, I love alliteration!), but it's not many times in the course of a career when one can hear a lament of no-fault divorce, the soundness of phonics, and derision of integrated mathematics all uttered in one breath (well, close to one breath). Seriously, while many of us don't necessarily agree with the sum of Dr. Effrem's points, as EdWatch's lobbyist, she does provide viewpoints that need to be considered as we move toward education reform.

Off to the Senate. The Senate E-12 Budget Division heard a number of fund transfer bills on Tuesday morning, including one for the Rocori school district. Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska (shown at left with SF 2397 author Senator Tarryl Clark) made the case that ISD #750 should be allowed to transfer revenue generated in their disabled access account to their undesignated general fund balance. There is always concern expressed regarding precedent when these bills are discussed, but Scott made a very strong case as to why Rocori should be allowed to do this. Funds are tight and every little bit (and $82,000 is hardly a little bit) helps as school districts attempt to steer through what appears to be a continuing atmosphere of crisis in terms of funding.

House K-12 Looks at Facilities. The House K-12 committee spent their hearing time discussing a number of bills dealing with facilities. Of these, two are of great interst. The first of these , HF 2980 (Benson), would make all districts in the state eligible for the alternative facilities program, increase the lease levy, and increase deferred maintenance revenue. Given the budget crunch (and the reluctance to increase property taxes), it is difficult to envision this
passing in 2008, but it does provide a start to a "to-do" list in terms of facilities for the comprehensive funding reform efforts. Representative Tim Faust's bill on facilities, yet to be introduced, adds to the HF 2980 template.

Link to HF 2980:

Into the Night. The House Education Committee reconvened at 6 PM and the main subject of discussion was the Task Force Report on where Minnesota's special education laws and rules exceed federal requirements. Discussion was polite, but the hearing room was filled with both parent advocates and special education providers. The process of determining the "whats," and as importantly the "whys," of instances where Minnesota exceeds federal guidelines is always a tense process and the nine members of the Task Force--along with Bureau of Mediation chief James Cunningham who facilitated the process--who slogged through seven meetings should be commended for their hard work.

It can be argued that the Task Force did not complete all of its work and a bill has been introduced--HF 3621 (Hilstrom)--to reconvene the Task Force. That bill will be heard Thursday morning in the House Education Committee and it will be interesting to see which tack the committee takes on this matter.

Diving into the Health Care Pool. The Education Minnesota mandatory health care insurance pool bill (HF 2747--Betzold) was heard last evening in the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. Being occupied in the House Education Committee, I was unable to attend that hearing, but did supply a letter to Committee Chair Linda Scheid outlining SEE's opposition to the mandatory nature of the legislation. In other words, as long as participation is mandatory, we're against it.

The bill was amended, passed, and re-referred to the Senate Committee on State and Local Government.

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