Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bad News (Well, Maybe). Once upon a time, Congress passed a $25.5 billion appropriation that would have extended the enhanced federal matching funds for state Medicaid and child welfare that were part of the stimulus package passed last year. Minnesota is slated to receive approximately $400 million of this appropriation and this $400 million is absolutely crucial if Minnesota is to balance its state budget without cutting K-12 education.

Well, that was then and this is now (That was Then, This is Now has a rare place in American pop culture history as it's the title of both a bad song and a bad movie) and the $25.5 billion is all of a sudden in jeopardy as deficit hawks at the federal level (It's hard to believe that there are still some of those after watching the past nine years in Washington D.C.) are insisting that any new appropriations legislation--including the jobs bill--be revenue neutral. In other words, if there is new spending, existing spending has to be cut by the same amount.

If the enhanced matching funds for state Medicaid and child welfare under Title IV-E aren't forthcoming, we are in a heap of trouble. With only a little over two weeks left in the 2010 Legislative Session, it would be extremely difficult to put the session to bed with dreams of a balanced budget.

How do we avoid this impending mess? Call your U.S. Senator and your Congressman (or Congresswoman) and urge them to make certain that they extend the Medicaid match!

More Bad News. It's turn the clock back day (Sorry. I forgot to wear my paisley tie.). Joel Sutter from Ehlers and Associates sent out a memorandum this afternoon protending more problems. This time it's the debt service equalization appropriation.

The debt service equalization appropriation is not an open-and-standing appropriation. In other words, a specific dollar amount is approved by the Legislature and the aid is then forwarded to school districts by formula. If demand is higher than anticipated (and we'll get to the whys) in a minute, district amounts are pro-rated to make the appropriation fit the formula entitlement amount. If demand is lower than anticipated, the unexpended surplus is sent back to the state general fund.

Over the past few years, the fund has never expended the entire amount of the appropriation approved by the Legislature. This is largely because very few districts still qualify for debt service equalization and the property wealth levels in these districts rose so fast during the run-up in housing and agricultural land values that the levy-to-aid ratio also rose. Remember, equalization programs work on the straightforward principle that awards aid to low property wealth districts through a formula that creates a levy percentage by dividing a district's adjusted net tax capacity per pupil by the state equalizing factor (currently $3,200 per pupil unit).

We are now seeing the opposite happen. Land values--particularly housing values--have dropped dramatically over the past two years and the levy-to-aid ratio is dropping. Because of this, the state appropriation for debt service equalization will not provide enough aid to fully meet the amount that districts will now qualify to receive and those amounts will have to be pro-rated by an equal percentage among all eligible districts. This will, of course, raise property taxes above where they would ordinarily be if the appropriation were sufficient to meet the formula needs of the program. Legislators are aware of this problem and may be in a position to fix it in the remaining days of the 2010 Legislative Session. But, as stated in today's first blog item, given the new parameters of the budget debate and a possible funding gap of $400 million, correcting this relatively small problem may be a tall order.

Mark Up Tomorrow. The House K-12 Education Funding Division will be marking up its version of the omnibus funding bill tomorrow. Representative Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), Chair of the House K-12 Education Policy Committee, will be offering a comprehensive amendment dealing with the evaluation of teachers and principles. The text of the amendment is available at this link:

Mariani Amendment: http://http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/comm/docs/H2431A8.pdf

The Senate will also be unveiling its version of the omnibus K-12 funding/policy bill tomorrow. I will provide a summary of the major provisions in that bill in the blog.

Monday, April 26, 2010

House Unveils Omnibus K-12 Funding/Policy Bill. Well, it's not exactly a funding bill, but there are provisions--both in the short- and long-terms--that have implications on funding, so at least in a technical sense, HF 2431 is a funding bill. Even with the paucity of revenue, the House has managed to put together a 120-page bill. I don't want to sound trite, because there are a number of very important provisions in the bill that should prove helpful to school districts throughout the state during these challenging fiscal times.

Here are some of the highlights of the bill:

  1. Sets the aid payment shift at 73%/27%--the same level as implemented by the Governor last July--in statute (Article 5, Section 9).
  2. Sets the property tax recognition shift at 48.1% beginning for FY 2010, the same general vicinity as the level set by the Governor unilaterally after last session (Article 5, Section 8).
  3. Pays back shifts and replenishes budget reserves in the same manner as current law (No change from current law, but there should be a change from current law).
  4. Allows district renewing a capital projects levy at the same tax rate to put the "voting 'Yes' will raise your taxes" language on the ballot (Article 1, Section 4).
  5. Raises equalizing factor for total operating capital levy from $10,700/PU to $10,915/PU for taxes payable in 2011 and to $11, 029/PU for taxes payable in 2012 and later (Article 1, Section 8).
  6. Allows school boards to renew an expiring operating referendum by board approval (Article 1, Section 10). These last two provisions are tied together. By allowing boards to renew operating levies without approval of voters in the school district, the state estimates that levies will be slightly higher as a result of this action then they ordinarily would be. Because the House has a zero levy target, it was forced to buy down these levies somewhere and that was accomplished through an increase in the total operating capital equalizing factor. The amount of the adjustment is approximately $3.8 million.
  7. School districts are encouraged to provide mental health instruction for students in grades 7 through 12 (Article 2, Section 5).
  8. A number of provisions relating to the education and reporting on results of "at-risk and off-track" students in reaching state and locally determined learning benchmarks (Article 2, Sections 9, 10, and 28).
  9. Allows Board of Teaching to develop a alternative teacher preparation program and limited-term teacher license (Article 2, Section 17).
  10. Creates "efficiency plus" task forces to investigate how smaller school districts can cooperate with other school districts and local units of government to deliver services more efficiently (Article 2, Section 18).
  11. Suspends requirement that revenue be reserved for staff development temporarily and allows districts to transfer any balance remaining in the fund on June 30, 2010, into the general fund permanently (Article 2, Section 25).
  12. Creates fiber optic infrastructure grant program with two funds (one in the general fund and one in the bond proceeds fund) to strengthen state's commitment to fiber optic networks (Article 4, Section 3).
  13. General authority for school districts to make fund transfers during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years is created (Article 5, Section 15).
  14. Legislative Coordinating Commission is given authority to undertake activities that are necessary to advise the Legislature and monitor the executive branch on issues related to the Permanent School Fund (Article 6, Section 1).
  15. Article 8 is devoted to the "New Minnesota Miracle" with the same language as last year's bill. Formula amounts are great! Referendum cap is too high. Equalization rates are too low.
In all, this is a really good bill seeing that there's no possible way new money could come into the system this session. A large amount of flexibility for school districts is created with the ability to transfer revenue between funds, including the ability to transfer the unexpended balance remaining in districts' staff development funds at the end of this fiscal year into their respective general funds. Further, the ability of districts to renew existing referendum levies (at the same amount only) by board resolution is a tonic for the times.

There will be a plentitude of scorn likely coming from the Governor's office regarding the bill, however. The bill does not contain much in terms of what the Governor believes to be necessary for Minnesota to seriously compete in Phase 2 of the Federal Race to the Top program. Whether or not that torpedoes the bill remains to be seen, as there are a number of provisions the Governor included in his 2010 education bill, particularly the formalization of the aid payment and property tax early recognition shits.

Stay tuned in for more discussion. The bill will be heard again on Wednesday, April 28, at 10:00 AM in Room 5 of the State Office Building. Could be a fairly long meeting with a lot of amendments and discussion, polite and otherwise.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Congrats to Roger Giroux! The Anoka Technical College Foundation threw a nice little breakfast for retired Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dr. Roger Giroux this morning. It was truly a great event that featured some very interesting testimonials from students and teachers at the college describing what the programs there have meant to them. One of the students will be graduating this spring from the Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) that Dr. Giroux, along with Anoka-Hennepin administrator Ginny Karbowski and the Anoka-Hennepin School Board, worked to establish on the Anoka Technical College campus.

The second speaker was a graduate of the Anoka-Hennepin's Area Learning Center a few years back who has graduated from several programs at the Technical College and is now an instructor there.

The third speaker was a student who was forced to make a mid-career change in vocations and is a recent graduate of the nursing program who is now employed full-time in her new career and will also be teaching at the Technical College in the future.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren was scheduled to appear, but had a last-minute conflict that prevented her from attending. She sent a great and entertaining letter that was read to the audience.


It would be my guess that Commissioner Seagren was embroiled in discussions over Race to the Top in an attempt to craft a bill containing enough of the Governor's suggestions that will merit his continued support and can still pass the Legislature. What struck me during the student/faculty presentations was (after wondering if Arne Duncan was familiar with programs like this one) why isn't Race to the Top concentrating on programs like the one featured at this morning's breakfast.

Three compelling stories. Two people who wouldn't have finished high school without the programs available through an area learning center or STEP. Another person who was in desperate need of new employment skills after being laid off from her job and found those skills at the local technical college.

As you've noticed in my Race to the Top comments in earlier entries this week, I'm not totally sold on the value of the program. Yes, we should re-apply and if it takes a few sensible changes to law to make the application more viable, then let's make those changes. Would it be nice to have some money? Absolutely. There's no detracting from those two facts.

BUT, shouldn't the federal government be working to strengthen programs that already have a proven track record of retaining high school students through the application of alternative learning strategies--particularly "hands on" learning available through technical programs--and also providing industry-ready skills for mid-career employees?

And that's my frustration. Minnesota has been a leader over the years in secondary-vocational education (at least it was once upon a time), but the failure to provide additional state formula revenue for these programs over the past two decades has put a number of these programs in danger of being cut. Programs like STEP are efforts to utilize existing facilities for both secondary and post-secondary students to get the most possible mileage out of equipment that is necessary to successfully train students and are cost-prohibitive for school districts alone.

There are other areas where Minnesota is a clear national leader, particularly in the area of Response-to-Intervention. Shouldn't our Race to the Top application be looking at these programs instead of initiatives like alternative teacher licensure?

This leads to the next question, which is "What will the re-authorization of the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) look like?" Will it simply be Race to the Top writ large or will it be an effort that will seriously look at federal programs, like Special Education, Technical Education, and Title I, that are woefully underfunded. That's the $64 billion question (inflation from the old television show amount) and I'm guessing most of you know what my hopes are.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Race to the Top Hearing. The Senate and House K-12 Education Policy Committees met for almost three hours Tuesday morning in a joint hearing dedicated to the proposed application for Phase 2 of the United States' Department of Education's Race to the Top program. The Governor's office has drafted a bill that it believes would, if passed, put Minnesota in a much better position to receive approval in its grant application.

As I listened to the discussion, I couldn't help but recall Book One of Plato's Republic (Stop the eye-rolling! You know you want to hear this analogy!). That section of Plato's masterpiece dealt with the discussion of how the concept of justice should be defined. Change the word "justice" to the term "education reform" and the discussion was just about as frustrating as the one facilitated by Socrates in the fifth century B.C.E. The especially frustrating element of the discussion is that everyone seemed to want to play the part of Thrasymachus--you know, the "might makes right" guy--but both sides of the argument want to make it seem like the other side is the one with all the power.

Education Minnesota, while not being as blunt as Thrasymachus, seems to believe that the Governor is trying to ram a poorly-designed program down the throats of an unwilling population. On the other hand, the Governor seems to contend that Education Minnesota holds all the cards and that their refusal to support the Governor's proposal makes the whole enterprise an exercise in futility. And thus, the discussion pretty much hangs on that point, whether or not that point is being expressed.

The testimony was good and it was supportive for the most part. Dr. Misty Sato from the University of Minnesota and Peter Hutchinson and Susan Heegard of the Bush Foundation presented their plans for improved teacher training and evaluation. We were fortunate to hear the Bush Foundation's program at last week's SEE meeting and Peter Hutchinson, as he contended he would, made an impassioned plea for the Legislature to think outside the box and adopt a bold proposal like the Bush Foundation's to include in the state's application.

The die is yet to be cast on this proposal. I am certain discussions are going to continue to take place over the next several weeks and with a K-12 conference committee likely to begin its work by the first week of May, there is plenty of time for the Legislature to adopt proposals that should, at least in theory, make Minnesota's Phase 2 application more competitive. That said, the proposal is going to have to be considerably more competitive as Minnesota scored well behind the finalists in the initial round of Race to the Top.

SF 3373--the bill containing the Governor's recommendations--was introduced in the Senate today. It was not introduced in the House because the House did not meet in floor session today. Here is a link to the bill.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Starting Gun Goes Off on Revised Race to the Top Application. Just when you think most of the major education issues have already been discussed this session, Minnesota's application for Phase 2 in the Race to the Top competition has leap-frogged every other order of education-related business. With the gislative decision to wait on final action on the respective K-12 omnibus education funding and policy bills in the short term (the shortest of short terms), attention has turned possible legislative action on several items the Pawlenty Administration believes are necessary if the application is to fare better in the upcoming round of Race to the Top Awards.

As many of you recall, Minnesota's failure to find its way into the sixteen finalists for the Phase 1 awards ignited a veritable conflagration of charges and counter-charges as to why Minnesota's application was unsuccessful. Most of the sniping took place between Governor Pawlenty and Education Minnesota. For a refresher, check here:

Note the strong language laying the blame for the failed application at the doorstep of Education Minnesota.

The reaction from Education Minnesota (and one gubernatorial candidate) have been equally strong. Just last week, gubernatorial candidate defended Education Minnesota while excorciating Governor Pawlenty in a press conference with Education Minnesota leadership. For those comments, check here:

In the return of serve category, the Governor countered today with a press conference that outlined a bill being introduced that contains provisions he believes the Legislature must pass if Minnesota's Phase 2 application is to be taken seriously. Included among those provisions are measures to allow the state to take over failing schools, alternative teacher licensure, reforms to teacher tenure and enhanced alternative bargaining.

Tomorrow, this bill will receive a hearing at a Joint Senate/House E-12 Policy Committee meeting at 8:30 AM in Room 200 of the State Office Building. It should be interesting and I will be wearing full body armor.

I'm not going to channel my "inner Barry Goldwater" here, but I can remember doing a book report on Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" while in junior high and among Goldwater's points was resistance to the creation of a federal department of education. As Dennis Miller used to say "I don't want to go off on a rant here (so I won't)," but all of this Race to the Top noise makes me wonder how much help school districts throughout the country actually get from the US Department of Education. Instead of forcing legislatures throughout the nation to pass laws which may or may not really do anything to promote student achievement, maybe they should think about funding special education and Title I at the amounts needed to match the supposed commitment made when these funding formulas were first passed.

I was thinking about the old Certs commercial when I was pondering what to write in the blog today. You know "It's a candy mint." "No, it's a breath mint." "It's two, two, two mints in one." To me, Race to the Top is similar "It's an education program." "No, it's a game show." "It's two, two, two things at once."

The next few days will be interesting as how the Legislature reacts to the Governor's admonishments will likely affect the atmosphere for the remainder of the Legislative Session. I'll let you know how the first round of that turns out tomorrow.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Back to Charteria. The Senate E-12 Funding Division has been meeting about once a week since coming back from the holiday break and have been devoting almost all of their time to Senator Kathy Saltzman's SF 2716, a bill that would bring some fairly significant changes to Minnesota's charter school law. Perhaps the most profound effect would be allowing charter schools to own their own buildings. This is a major change and frankly, I don't know if it's that good an idea. The defense for the move is that the bar for charter schools owning their own buildings would be pretty high and would have to show that they have both a record of success and steady membership.

Thursday's hearing featured some very interesting testimony, especially from Center for School Change Director Joe Nathan. As most of you know, Joe has been one of the major promoters of education reform over the past three decades, being instrumental in changes like post-secondary enrollment options, open enrollment, area learning centers, alternative schools, and, the subject of today's hearing, charter schools. Joe hit some very firm, and needed, middle ground in his testimony, which has become extremely hard to do on the issue of charter schools. The gist of Joe's testimony is that choice, in and of itself, is not enough and that the choices available to students must be high-quality choices that lead to greater levels of achievement, with achievement being defined in broader terms that simply test scores. At the same time, choice for choice sake or for reasons of comfort have to be viewed less favorably.

The bill passed with an amendment that clears up some concerns from various parties, including the charter school community and Minnesota Management and Budget. It appears that the bill will be moving on its own and will not be part of the Senate's omnibus education funding legislation. HF 3176, the House companion to SF 2716, does not appear to be moving in the House, which makes passage of any charter school reform questionable this session.

Tax Day. It's April 15. Have you paid your taxes today? I paid mine and then I went over to the Capitol and saw Minnesota's Tea Party chapter stage its program. While more highly publicized than in previous years, I didn't think the gathered crowd was that much larger today than crowds in other years. Of course, the change in party of the White House's occupant usually brings out vibrant opposition from the other side (see protests against the Iraq War in reference to this effect). What really disappointed me is that I didn't see any really creative signs or anyone dressed up in Revolutionary War garb. Maybe next year.

I think what is puzzling veteran political types like myself is gauging what, if any, effect these protests will have on the November, 2010, election results. I don't think anyone ca,,n argue convincingly that the opposition to the Democratically-controlled Congress and President Obama is not spirited and that there are some vulnerabilities in the policies pursued by the Democrats. What isn't known is whether or not the Tea Party activities are actually bringing new people into the political system and whether or not individuals brought into the system by the Tea Party will remain motivated enough to follow through on Election Day.

It should be very interesting to watch develop. I think we'll know a lot more starting with the state political conventions that are convening over the next two weekends.

Always Nice to See Old Friends. I ran into former State Representative and longtime friend of SEE Bob Ness this morning. For those of you who are relatively new to the organization, I'll just say that former Representative Ness, who lives in Dassel, was a tireless supporter of funding equity who never shied away from the cause for more adequate and equitable funding.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It's Been Awhile. . .and Nothing Has Really Changed. Sorry about being absent so long. Things were hectic in March as the various education-related committees made their annual efforts to hear just about every education bill introduced during the session. These bills had their day in court and were taken back to their holding cells, where most of them will remain until next session. It's just been a pattern over the past decade or so to hear bills even though the committee has little, if any, interest in pursuing the proposed legislation seriously. Makes for some long nights and interesting discussion. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury, signifying not a whole lot."

We are now well beyond the third deadline, when it was anticipated that the omnibus education bills would be rolled out to the public. Not that it makes that much of a difference. If a committee goes past deadline, the bill that emerges from committee simply has to go to the Committee on Rules and Administration, where it is given a tardy slip and sent on its way.

The main reason for the delay is that the Governor and Legislature are waiting to see how the passage of the health care legislation will affect the state's bottom line for the remainder of this biennium. The Governor's budget proposal estimated that passage of the health care bill would improve the state's budget situation by $387 billion. How much that will change is anyone's guess. As someone pointed out to me the other day, the federal health care bill is in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars, which makes anything as innocent as a rounding error a pretty hefty chunk of change.

If the estimates hold up, K-12 will likely be spared from any cuts this year, but it will be a brief respite as things promise to be all shades of ugly for the next two biennia. One of the little-noted facts about the February forecast was that although the short-term budget picture got better, the long-term budget picture got worse. So, as Bette Davis once uttered in "All About Eve," "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

The state political conventions have also thrown a bit of a monkey wrench into the late stages of the 2010 Legislative Session. The DFL convention will take place Friday through Sunday next week, on April 23 through April 25 with the Republican Convention being held the next week. Rumor has it (everything is rumor these days) the Legislature is going to work short weeks each of the next two weeks to allow legislators to attend their respective state conventions. I can only imagine there will be some mention of this as the Legislature "slacking off," but there really isn't a whole lot to do right now until the final federal numbers relating to the health care package are determined. Once that amount is gauged, things are probably going to move fairly quickly.

The National Scene. If you're looking for a preview of what next session might look like, take a gander at what is happening in New Jersey. Newly-elected Governor Christopher Christie cut nearly half a billion dollars in previously-approved aid to school districts in early March and then unveiled a budget that would cut schools by an additional $820 million. All of this has led to some fairly snarky goings-on and some nasty exchanges between the New Jersey Governor and the New Jersey Education Association.

One of the real ironies here--and it is a very sad irony--is that the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that after over three decades of wrangling in the courts and over a decade of trying to meet the requirements set out in the Abbott vs. Burke decision. Funding decisions made during the last year of former Governor Corzine's tenure and the first year of Governor Christie's tenure have totally eroded the promised gains of that litigation. As Arsenio Hall used to say, "Things that make you go, 'Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.'"

I'll leave it at that for this entry. I will be more assiduous with my blogging as the Legislative Session winds down to its end. Again, never hesitate to give me a call if you want to talk about anything. I can be reached at 612-220-7459 and, of course, at my e-mail of brad.lundell@schoolsforequity.org.