Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Still in the House Education Finance Committee. I'm still here as the Education Finance Committee. I decided to start an entirely new entry in the quest to honor the need for more white space. The committee has now moved on to Representative Pam Myhra's (R-Burnsville) HF 638, a bill that would create an A through F grading system for Minnesota school districts.

Modeled after the Florida school grading system, which was discussed by the panel of Florida education leaders when they were in town last month. This measure has been credited by some observers as playing a significant role in raising overall achievement in Florida and narrowing the achievement gap.

A district's grade would be determined through a formula where: (1) 50% of the grade would be based on the proficiency levels of all students (accounted for in their subgroups), (2) 25% of the grade would come from growth in for each subgroup, (3) 15% based on the number of students in the low-growth category who did not reach proficiency in reading, and (4) 10% based on the number of students in the low-growth category who did not reach proficiency in mathematics. The product of these calculations would be compared to statewide average measures in each of those areas.

As I reported in my response to Katherine Kersten's opinion piece in the Minneapolis StarTribune, although Minnesota's per pupil spending exceeds that of Florida's, the percentage increase in Florida over the last decade has been 20 percentage points (approximately 60% in Florida to 40% in Minnesota) higher. Add to that fact that Florida has been spending this money strategically and the achievement gains become easier to explain.

During the Florida panel's presentation to the Minnesota Senate and House Education Committees, former Florida Education Commissioner John Winn (currently Chief Program Officer for the National Math and Science Initiative) stated (and I paraphrase) that when the Florida Department of Education saw it as its responsibility to help those schools at the lower end of the grading spectrum raise their achievement level. To me, that angle has to be discussed thoroughly in conjunction with any school grading system.

Does our Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) have the complement necessary to help schools that are having difficulty with achievement? Every biennium for the past two decades, MDE has taken cuts to its complement and sometimes those cuts have been massive as in the 20% state complement cut in the early 1990s. As has been pointed out earlier this session by MDE staff, there are currently more positions in the department paid with federal dollars as opposed to state dollars. How would a set-up like this work in helping school districts with low levels of achievement? I have been buoyed by Commissioner Cassellius' early comments regarding a culture change at MDE to make it a more service-driven department. That would mesh with the drive for higher achievement levels by all students grading system or not. But if we are to implement a relatively unvarnished grading system--unvarnished meaning no qualifiers, only aggregate scores--we are going to have to give MDE the tools to make certain that school districts get the assistance they need.

This bill is a complement of sorts to the Governor's "exemplary" schools initiative.

Integration and Compensatory Revenue Categories Under Scrutiny. Two bills have been heard in the Senate in the last two weeks that would take a whack at integration and/or compensatory revenue. SF 422, Senator Dave Brown's (R-Becker) bill, would cut integration revenue in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, bringing them down to $129 per pupil unit, the current second tier level for districts deemed racially-isolated. Districts bordering racially-isolated schools would continue to get $92 per pupil unit.

Senator Brown's bill would also de-link the compensatory, sparsity, and transportation sparsity components of the general education formula from increases in the general education formula basic amount. In other words, the multiplier effect that increases the formula "value" of these components automatically.

The bill also states that going forward, 90% of any increase in state support will go into the basic formula component. With so many SEE members being well below the state average in terms of per pupil categorical revenue amounts, this is an approach that is largely SEE-friendly. Whether or not this has any "legs" during the session remains to be seen and we will have an idea as to whether it will even receive serious attention very shortly.

The Senate Education Committee heard Senator David Hann's (R-Eden Prairie) SF 618 this afternoon. This bill repeals the compensatory formula in its entirety and replaces it with a grant program that aims to provide schools--public or private--with the opportunity to apply for grants aimed at improving achievement. The process for grant application is very vague and it's unclear how revenue would be re-distributed under this framework. I think an argument can be made that there should be greater scrutiny regarding how compensatory revenue is expended, but there's no question that those districts that receive high levels of compensatory revenue can justify their expenditures.

Again, it should be interesting as we move forward.

Signing Off. Representative Myhra's HF 638 was just recommended for possible inclusion in the House omnibus education funding bill, giving me the opportunity to wind up my posting for the evening.

I hope to see many of you in the school administration field at the Spring MASA conference tomorrow and Friday. I'm serving on a panel on Friday morning, so I can imagine many are on the edge of their seats anticipating my comments. Well. . . .maybe not.

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