Thursday, February 24, 2011

Qualified Economic Offer Heard Today. The House Education Reform Committee was the only education-related hearing held today and it was devoted to a single bill: HF 269 (Downey), a bill that would create a new bargaining option for school districts known as the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO). This bargaining tool was formerly part of the teacher negotiations framework in Wisconsin, but it was repealed when Wisconsin had to cut state funding to education midway through the last decade.

Under the QEO, if a school board offered its teachers wage and benefit increases equivalent to the percentage increase in the basic formula portion of the general education formula, the teachers could not strike. The Minnesota Business Partnership provided testimony in support of the bill, seeing it as an opportunity to hold down teacher salary increases, which would in turn allow districts to prevent lay-offs of its less senior teachers. In his testimony, Jim Bartholomew from the Minnesota Business Partnership pointed out that a vast number of teacher settlements reached over the past decade-and-a-half have exceeded--in percentage terms--the biennial increase in the basic formula.

It's hard to argue with that, because total package increases usually do exceed increases in the basic formula for a lot of different reasons. First, there is the simple fact that step-and-lane increases are almost universally automatic in Minnesota school districts. Second, the basic formula is not the only source of revenue available to school districts. There are categorical formulas and referenda that also contribute to school district general funds available for negotiating purposes. Further, school districts have fund balances that are often used to augment increases in the general fund to help close up negotiations. Lastly, some school districts are growing, which puts more revenue into the system and, provided the district can still accommodate the growth in its current facilities and run to scale, add to the size of negotiated settlements.

While the QEO would basically put an end to salary and benefit negotiations, other non-monetary financial items would still have to be negotiated. Roger Aronson, legal counsel and lobbyist for both school principal associations, pointed out that these items may be more likely to end up in arbitration or litigation if districts cut off negotiations on financial issues as they would be isolated from a comprehensive negotiating framework.

This is an interesting concept and one that will likely receive more attention as the session wears on. There are a number of changes to the current negotiations framework that have been introduced (repeal of January 15 deadline/salary freeze) and something will likely be done in this area before the session ends. Whether these changes will be permanent or simply in effect for the next biennium remains to be seen, but I would venture a guess that some changes to the negotiations process will be passed and signed.

Whither Alternative Teacher Licensure? Beth Hawkins at MinnPost writes an interesting story today about the loss of momentum toward quick passage of an alternative licensure program this session. A month ago, alternative licensure appeared to be the "low hanging fruit" with bi-partisan support that would show that the Republican Legislature and DFL Governor, but SF 40 is sitting in the Senate after being returned from the House in a different form.

The fact that the House amended the bill does not seem to be the problem. Instead, Governor Dayton is urging some changes to the bill that would be incorporated during a conference committee. In the absence of these changes, the bill would likely be vetoed and the prospects of bi-partisanship dimmed in the process. The month of March will see almost no discussion of education policy, as the entire Legislature plans to have their budget bills finished by end of the month. Hopefully, accord on the alternative teacher licensure bill can be reached before then.

Indiana Legislators Go AWOL Over Voucher Bill. It's not just Wisconsin Democrats who have literally changed positions by going AWOL. Indiana Democrats in that state's House of Representatives, in protest of Governor Mitch Daniels' proposal to expand school vouchers that could be used for private school tuition, fled to Urbana, Illinois. If the Democrats do not return to the Indiana statehouse by Friday, the voucher bill will die for this session due to the budget process in Indiana.

Should be interesting.

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