Saturday, February 05, 2011

Week That Was. Things are starting to click a bit more at the Capitol. The new Legislature seems intent on putting its stamp on the early session proceedings by passing a large budget-cutting bill (HF 130) that basically makes the cuts enacted to balance the budget on a short-term basis permanent. That is clear veto-bait for the Governor, who has stated that he wants the entire $6.2 billion budget shortfall addressed in one comprehensive package instead of in waves. Further, he has yet to release his budget--slated to be unveiled on February 15--and he isn't going to approve legislation that may fly in the face of what is in that budget.

As a result, we find ourselves at the first stand-off of the session and the "dance" has begun. What remains to be seen is whether the "dancing" is going to take the form of an elegant waltz (unlikely) or wild punk rock pogo-ing and slam dancing. My guess it will be somewhere in between, but I don't think anyone is kidding themselves, there's going to be plenty of "dancing" and it's not always going to be pretty (think junior high school dance).

The challenge ahead of the Legislature and Governor is massive and the language and interation between the two bodies of government has been civil up to now and I honestly see it as remaining civil. But civility isn't going to solve the state's problems, making tough decisions will and how and when those tough decisions are going to be made is part of the unfolding process.

As a long-time observer of the political process (okay, okay, hack), I was struck by the fact that the Senate Republican caucus had all 37 of their caucus members support HF 130. This was a tough vote, especially for some of the new legislators who won close races last November. Usually, some of the more vulnerable legislators are given a pass on a tough vote from time-to-time, but it's clear from the outset that the Senate Republican caucus wanted each member to use this as a "statement" vote that shows that the caucus is serious about solving the budget problem (even though HF 130 has about a 0.0000000001% chance of being signed by the Governor, at least at this juncture of the session). Perhaps it's simply a statement, but perhaps it shows a commitment to something deeper, namely a cohesive caucus that is going to not allow much meandering by its members. Should be interesting to watch as the session winds on.

Commissioner Cassellius Shines. No one would confuse Dr. Cassellius with major league baseball's HR king Barry Bonds, but she hit the ball out of the park so far at two legislative hearings Thursday that I wouldn't be surprised that Bonds starting taking batting practice again out of sheer jealousy. Commissioner Cassellius and Deputy Commissioner Jessie Montano appeared before the House Education Policy Committee and House Education Finance Committee on Thursday and both did an excellent job outlining the challenges facing the state in terms of education and also providing insight as to how staffing cuts (two decades worth by my count) have affected the department.

Dr. Cassellius has a compelling personal story and it's obvious as she re-counts that story how much education has meant to her personally and how she wants to use her skills and experiences to help all students in Minnesota have access to programs that will help them realize their potential. What was particularly impressive about Dr. Cassellius was her straightforward, unvarnished language in talking about the achievement gap and--without using the term explicitly--opportunity gap. As she talked about equity issues, I was struck by her knowledge of differences in opportunity that exist and how the state needs to take steps toward addressing them.

Jessie Montano pointed out an interesting statistic in her portion of the presentation, showing that ten years ago, the complement at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) was 60% state-funded and 40% federally-funded. In ten years, that ratio has flipped, with 60% of MDE is funded through federal money. There are several explanations for this, most notably the promotion of grant programs by the federal government to implement its policy goals, but there is no question that cuts in state revenue to MDE have had a negative effect on maintaining state-funded positions.

I realize that the MDE is often the target of derision for its work with local school districts throughout Minnesota and some of that scorn is warranted, but what has happened (at least in my view) is that the cuts to the department have been deepest in those areas were its actions provided assistance to school districts. Laws, both state and federal, require an element of compliance and those positions, again both state and federal, that deal with compliance have to be maintained, leaving them immune from cuts. As a result, when cuts are made, they often come in areas where school districts have positive interaction with the department. Just something to think about as we move forward.

Again, congrats to the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner for their straight talk.

Governor Releases Education Program Outline. Governor Dayton and Commissioner Cassellius held a press conference on Friday morning, February 4, releasing their "7 Point Plan for Achieving Excellence." There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about the outline of the plan, but that's not necessarily how it should be judged. There's a time for thinking outside-the-box and there's a time to look at the programs we have in place and how to make those programs more accessible to all and more effective in reaching the state's education goals. There's plenty in Minnesota's educational "box" and what the Governor appears to be suggesting is that we start looking at the contents of that "box" with a more judicious eye and concentrating on what works for Minnesota's students.

Closing the achievement gap remains near the top of the Governor's agenda. Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation and the Governor wants take serious steps toward closing it. Like everyone else, I believe closing the achievement gap is extremely important, but closing it should not come at the expense of creating a larger opportunity gap. Closing these related, but different, gaps should not be an "either/or" proposition. Instead, it is a "both/and" proposition and should be viewed in conjunction with one another.

The Governor also wisely wants to invest more in early childhood education and reduce the number of tests being given to Minnesota students. As part of his goal to reduce the number of tests and to make those tests more valuable in measuring student achievement, the Governor proposes that a Test Reduction Task Force be established to develop recommendations in this area.

The Governor also wants to establish a Governor's Commission on Better School Funding to take a look at Minnesota's education funding system and its array of funding streams and determine what, if any, changes should be made. To some, this is just a replay of past Governors' actions and will simply produce another discussion and academic exercise that will result in a report that will simply gather dust on a shelf rather than bring about changes in our funding system.

Whether or not that's the case remains to be seen, but that doesn't mean the exercise shouldn't be undertaken. Significant changes to education funding frameworks are almost universally produced through executive suggestion (or court mandate). Think "Minnesota Miracle" and "Big Plan" and you realize that those were both proposals that came forth from the executive branch. Legislatures by their nature are bodies where compromises to a proposition take place, making comprehensive reform extremely difficult.

In speaking with MDE staff, it is not the intent of this commission to start from scratch, but instead to look at what can be done within the current framework to produce a more adequate and equitable system. Neither the Governor nor Commissioner used their loudest trumpet when they made the statement saying "more resources are needed," but the statement was made clearly.

I was asked by a reporter, "How can you change the system with no new revenue?" Good point. But just because we don't have revenue now doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about what an improved education funding system should look like and take actions to alter the funding framework for when money is available.

My final observation is that although the program announced by the Governor and Commissioner lacks detail, there should be little argument from the Legislature that anything suggested by the Governor shouldn't be part of the discussion in how to improve Minnesota schools and student learning. The proposal released Friday covers a lot of territory, but it is all territory within a substantive discussion of Minnesota education that contains the broad range of viewpoints can comfortably take place.

In closing, I want to congratulate the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED) for mention of its reading program by the Governor during the press conference. For those of you who aren't familiar with that program, it's an exemplary program that has been a laboratory for innovation for over 25 years. Dr. Kim Gibbons--and her predecessors Dr. Gary Germann and Dr. Chris McHugh--have been, and continue to be, pioneers in reading instruction and the use of Response-to-Intervention strategies. In addition, almost all the members of SCRED are also members of SEE.

Governor's Plan Links

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