Thursday, April 30, 2009

Live from the Conference Committee. We're into our second evening of E-12 conference committee proceedings. The action (let me re-phrase, inaction) to this point has centered around the discussion of the provisions in both bills, highlighting both differences and similarities that exist between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Last night was dedicated to the larger questions before the conference committee in terms of funding, particularly the House's flat funding and the Senate's 3.5% per year funding reduction. Special education, both in terms of funding and policy, was also discussed last evening.

Tonight, the remainder of the bill will receive its initial review by the conference committee. The portion of the bill dealing with early childhood programs were just presented and Representative Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) just finished outlining her committee's position on libraries. Representative Murphy is not a member of the conference committee, but was brought in to provide insight on the House's approach to the library question, especially as it relates to maintenance-of-effort.

One of the big changes I have witnessed in my legislative career is the willingness of conference committees to bring in outside testimony. In the old days (when Alexander Ramsey and I used to sit around chewing plug tobacco and admiring each other's high-button shoes), conference committees rarely (and I mean really rarely) would allow participation of legislators who were not members of the conference committee to speak before the conference committee.

Well, back to the action. The discussion of Article 2--the education excellence article that contains a number of educational quality improvement proposals--is a bit slow in the coming, as there was an extended discussion of the consolidated levy. The consolidated levy, as many of you know, is a long-standing proposal that takes three levy categories--operating capital, equity, and transition--and combines them into a single levy category with a statewide levy percentage based on adjusted net tax capacity. This program does provide some measure of tax equity (although it's not even) by shifting effort away from most low property wealth districts. Because it mimics the general education levy, there is considerable opposition, mostly from the business community, to this measure. Stay tuned.

We're on to Article 2 and now discussing the differing shared services proposals in each bill. Senator Terry Bonoff (D-Minnetonka) is now providing insight and defending the Senate's proposal.

Concurrent enrollment between high school and post-secondary institutions was cut in the Governor's bill and both the Senate and House oppose that cut, the House by broadening the state requirements for the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs to include concurrent enrollment and the Senate through a $1 million per year rider. The House pointed out the Senate's position would be vulnerable to a line-item veto. The Senate funded their position, if not directly, through a reductions in the base level appropriations for the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. There is an interest on both sides to maintain the option of concurrent enrollment, so look for negotiations to come to an agreement here.

Now, the 11th grade high-stakes tests are under the microscope. There are similar alternatives set out in both bills pertaining to the 11th grade math test and the House bill also allows for the awarding of a diploma under certain circumstances if a student has failed both the math and reading portions of the test. There is ample interest in reaching a compromise here, but the third party--the Governor--is now providing his input through the person of Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.

Commissioner Seagren is now pointing out her concerns (not only on testing) that were transmitted to the conference committee by letter. Among the Commissioner's 31 separate complaints:
  1. Senate position on providing more resources for QComp in St. Cloud. Department has revoked St. Cloud's participation in the program for lack of progress toward a satisfactory alternative compensation model. The Senate provides St. Cloud with one more year of funding.
  2. The Commissioner believes that language in the bill is not sufficient to ensure that state standards are aligned with federal expectations and would endanger Minnesota's eligibility for federal grants.
  3. A number of items related to testing that the Department deems as unclear.
  4. Proposed deadlines for applying for the QComp program the Department believes are detrimental to districts considering participating. Further, there are provisions in the bill that the Department believes allows participating districts to deviate from the state's QComp goals.
  5. The Department disagrees with the Senate's proposal to put unappropriated QComp funds into a grant program to help small rural districts prepare QComp proposals. MDE believes this would discriminate against mid-size districts seeking to join the QComp program.
  6. MDE wants to include the YMCA and Volunteers for America in the list of possible charter school sponsors. These groups, in MDE's view, are only vaguely aligned with religious organizations, which are prohibited from becoming sponsors because they are non-sectarian. Department wants to narrow limitation to "houses of worship" and allow sectarian groups to sponsor charter schools.
  7. Lack of clear direction on charter schools creating non-profit building corporations.
  8. Problems with the Deaf and Hearing Impaired Council created in the Senate bill, as it would have costs to MDE that are not reimbursed by the bill.
  9. MDE believes the Senate's quality rating system for early childhood programs is too ambitious and cannot succeed in the absence of a statewide quality rating tool for evaluation purposes.
  10. MDE does not support the increase in the number of signatures necessary to put a referendum revocation on a ballot.
  11. Insufficient resources for charter school authorizers in House bill.
  12. House bill takes curriculum evaluation and assessment cycles out of synchronization according to MDE. I believe Commissioner Seagren is referring to the House bill's delay of the new science standards by one year.
  13. MDE wants to keep private schools offering special education services to remain "full service." Language in the House bill, arising from the task force led by Representative Jerry Newton, only requires that federal special education dollars be passed through to private schools serving special education students and that state revenue does not have to be passed through to them.
And that's leaving some things out. Needless to say, the Governor got short shrift from the Legislature this year, but that's not entirely unexpected. Several of the House and Senate provisions relating to charter schools and QComp were gleaned from Legislative Auditor's reports on those two areas, so it's not like the Legislature is going far afield in putting together its responses to those programs. Further, the old saying is "the Governor proposes and the Legislature disposes" and in an active democracy, that's how it should work (regardless of which party controls what).

Back to the bill discussion. QComp is back on the docket with both bodies looking to do something to help smaller districts seriously consider QComp as an option. Many smaller districts simply don't have the staff size to develop and implement a meaningful the evaluation system that is a mandatory part of Qcomp.

The beat goes on. . . . .we continue to slog through the bill. Article 2 has a ton of stuff in it. Right now, we're immersed in the new charter school regulations carried by Representative Linda Slocum (DFL-Minneapolis) and Senator Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury). One particular difference between the bills is the presence in the Senate of the 36-month prohibition on the opening of a charter school within a one-mile radius of a building that has closed or a district that has either consolidated or dissolved. The Senate has this prohibition, the House does not. One thing to remember about this provision is that a local school board can waive the moratorium if it so chooses.

Another big difference between the two bills is the presence in the House bill of a re-design of the integration revenue program. There are considerable revenue swings in the House plan, but they will not take place until there is money available to hold districts losing money under the changes to be "held harmless."

Well, that's it for Article 2. Now we are going to move on to see if we can adopt some of the same and similar provisions in the two bills. A number of same positions have been adopted and we're out of here for tonight. Back tomorrow at 10 AM in Room 200 of the State Office Building. Deadline is next Friday (May 7) for the conference committee to have its work completed, so in all likelihood, we are going to be here all weekend.

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