Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Type III Clears Another Hurdle. SF 33, Senator Rick Olseen's (DFL-Harris) bill to exempt a number of Type III vehicle drivers who were regulated as a result of a DPS ruling in the wake of last year's Type III legislation, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon and will now head to the Senate E-12 Education Funding and Policy Division, which will likely be its last stop on the way to the Senate floor.

Most of the testimony in favor of the bill has been very straightforward, with education organizations outlining the increased costs in ther form of training and medical costs (for driver physicals) that districts have incurred as a result of the decision to subject occasional Type III vehicle drivers to the same requirements as those of full-time drivers. The fact that this decision was made after the legislature had adjourned last May and that there was no opportunity for the legislature to react to DPS' action in a timely manner saddled districts with the costs arising from this new mandate in a very tight time frame.

Another group with a slightly different reason for opposition surfaced early in the discussions to alter the 2008 requirements with a slightly different angle and has been very visible in advocating change. This group, the hearing-impaired community, has testified each time the bill has been heard and has made some very strong points as to how last year's legislation needs to be altered. Shown at the left, flanking Senator Olseen are Minnesota State Academy administrator Shawn Birnig and North Star Academy student Alison Porter. Many of the staff members traditionally entrusted with driving students at these schools are hearing-impaired and were unable to pass the physical instituted as part of last year's legislation, making them ineligible to drive. The sentiment at these schools is clear: drivers with a capability to communicate with hearing-impaired passengers are extremely important, not just as a safety measure, but as a role model for students. Many activities at schools serving the hearing-impaired have been curtailed because of both cost and the reluctance of the schools to use drivers without sign language capabilities. Removing the requirement that these drivers pass a physical would be a great boon to these schools as they strive to provide the state's hearing-impaired students with quality co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.

I will keep you posted as the Type III legislation moves onward.

Special Education Hits the Stage. The House K-12 Funding Division discussed the work of the special education task force that met throughout the summer months during their hearing on Tuesday afternoon. The charge of that task force was to re-visit the work of the task force that met after the 2007 legislative session in an attempt to reconcile differences between Minnesota and federal special education law and rule. As most of you know, Minnesota's laws and rules exceed federal law in many instances, which, while admirable in one respect, has added another layer of cost to be absorbed by school districts throughout Minnesota.

The task force that met during the 2007-2008 interim did a good job of identifying the places where Minnesota exceeds federal law, but could not develop compromises to bridge these differences. In view of this, legislation passed in 2008 re-configured and re-commissioned the task force in an attempt to build compromises on as many of these outstanding issues as possible. Alas, reaching meaningful compromise was rare in these task force proceedings as well, which leaves us pretty much in the same position as before the proceedings started.

Special education policy is going to be discussed extensively this year and today's hearing launched those discussions. My main impression is that there is much work ahead of the education community at all levels if we are to implement meaningful reform in this area. There is no question that we greatly exceed federal law in a number of areas and how much of this actually contributes to stronger achievement levels needs to be determined. The growing cross-subsidy from school district general funds to pay for un-reimbursed special education is putting increasing pressure on districts throughout the state and while we must make certain that we are meeting the needs of students with identified learning issues, whether physcial or cognitive, greater balance between state and federal special education law may be in order.

Alternative Facilities Hearing. Senator Terry Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) brought forward another bill--SF 433--that would change the eligibility requirements for the alternative facilities bonding and levy program. While the bill would only make one more district eligible, it does highlight the need to change this statute to make it more useful to a greater number of districts. Hopefully, this, and bills like the one brought forward last week by Hastings, will bring about needed changes.

There are a number of SEE districts currently not eligible that have expressed interest in this program. If you have a desire to see this program expanded, please let me know.

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