Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Living After Midnight. "Beware the Dinner Break" is a little known axiom around the Legislature, especially since rules have been implemented to prevent either body meeting after midnight, but it is one that always needs to be heeded. The House had been on the floor for about six hours yesterday, passing two omnibus funding bills--HF 1010 (the omnibus environment, energy, and natural resources funding bill) and HF 1101 (the omnibus higher education funding bill)--when they took a dinner break before coming back to debate, amend, and pass HF 934, the omnibus E-12 funding bill. Refreshed and nourished, the House reconvened at about 8:30 and commenced to aggressively discuss the bill and vote on a series of amendments until the bill was passed on a party line vote at about 2:30 this morning. To work that late, the House had to suspend the rule the prohibits meeting after the witching hour.

I think I've said it a couple of times this session, but the debate in the House on education issues has been exemplary all year long. Two distinctly different worldviews that often seem irreconcilable are often in play on a broad range of education issues and both sides have argued passionately and effectively in making their points. Of course, the Republicans have the votes and it's their perspective is pretty much carrying the day without much bipartisan compromise (which is understandable given the vast difference in worldviews that makes bipartisanship extremely difficult to foster). It was no different last night as both sides really put on their "A" game. The die was pretty much cast before the night started, but that doesn't mean the whole ordeal wasn't both interesting and entertaining.

The issue that was debated most ardently was the provision in HF 934 that provides low-income scholarships (read: vouchers) to students in persistently low-performing schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. At the risk of sounding cheeky, I didn't realize that was a plethora of constitutional lawyers in the House of Representatives on both sides of the issue as the constitutionality of the program was both questioned and affirmed by the opponents and proponents respectively. I'm not going to venture a guess as to whether or not the provision is constitutional (I am not a constitutional lawyer nor do I play one on television), but I'm reasonably certain that it would go all the way to the State Supreme Court if it were to become law.

As hot as the debate over this provision became, the debate over the early childhood education reform measures (carried in HF 669 by Representative Jennifer Loon) was even a bit more spicy. A number of cultural conservative groups like the Minnesota Family Council have concerns about early childhood education, seeing it as promoting an erosion of parent rights and the promotion of the "nanny state" and they certainly flexed their muscles in influencing the vote on an amendment that stripped the quality-rating system out of the bill.

The biggest surprise of the night was an amendment offered by Representative Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan) that proposed to reduce the proposed increase in the basic formula by $19 per pupil and shave down several other appropriations. Under the Buesgens' amendment, the money saved through these cuts would have gone to flood relief had the amendment passed. However, the amendment was throttled by a vote of 116-12. Even though it was defeated, the fact the amendment was even introduced shows that there is some tension in the majority caucus over the size of the education target, which comes in a mere $12 million below the Governor.

Other prominent amendments, these offered by DFLers, dealt with the high-stakes testing and teacher evaluation portions of the bill.

The House will now wait for the Senate to pass its version of the bill tomorrow and it is conceivable that a conference committee could start early next week.

In other education-related news, Governor Dayton and Commissioner of Education Cassellius sent a letter to Representatives Pat Garofalo and Sondra Erickson, the chairs of the House Education Funding and House Education Policy Committees respectively, informing them that the administration views the House bill as deeply flawed and slated for a veto unless dramatic changes are made during the conference committee proceedings. No surprise here.

Stay tuned. Things are going to get and stay busy up until the holiday break the week of April 18.

Governor's Education Funding Task Force Launches. Governor Dayton's education funding task force began its work today. The task force, co-chaired by Minneapolis Director of Business Affairs Peggy Ingison and Stillwater Superintendent Tom Nelson, has a very ambitious work plan, hoping to finish its work on design of a new funding framework by mid-May.

Today's meeting featured a very informative powerpoint presentation from Tom Melcher that accurately pointed out many of the challenges facing school districts in the state. Many of these problems deal directly with the equity issue both in terms of revenue and property tax effort disparities.

Deb Griffiths has posted the initial documents relating to the task force, including the roster of task force members, on the SEE website. There will be other documents coming forward soon, including today's powerpoint presentation that we will get on the website as soon as they become available.

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