Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dollars for (Low Income) Scholars. The House and Senate took their annual trek into the land of low-income scholarships for students in low-performing schools today, with University of Arkansas Professor (and St. Cloud native) Dr. Patrick Wolf providing testimony on a number of studies he has performed on the subject of school choice, especially as it pertains to low-income scholarship programs in urban areas. Dr. Wolf's work is certainly thorough, but it doesn't depart that much from the standard patter surrounding the issue.

In fairness to Wolf, the response from opponents didn't shed that much new light on the issue either. This is an issue where pretty much everyone has made up their minds. It's either going to be viewed as a silver bullet or a load of bull.

While I did not testify, I did send a letter to each committee member outlining the SEE organization's long-standing opposition to the use of public money for private education. In addition, I spun a slightly different angle highlighting how recent studies in Minnesota have shown state funding for education in general to be well below what is necessary to meet state and local academic standards and further that the funding system as a whole lacks a rational link between what is expected in terms of performance and what is provided in terms of funding. While that argument may not resonate in the short term, it is a point that the education community must repeatedly state if it is to stem the attack against public education.

Here is a link to Dr. Patrick Wolf. Agree with him or not, he has a very impressive resume.

Here's an Interesting Bill. Representative Pat Garofalo's (R-Farmington) HF 1859 was discussed today as well. HF 1859 would removed Northfield from the metro equity region for purposes of calculation of equity revenue. For those of you who don't recall when the equity revenue program was established in 1999, school districts with their district offices in the seven-county metropolitan area received a slightly more revenue than school districts with their offices outside the seven-county metropolitan area and that is still the case. Dakota County makes up part of the Northfield school district and the district moved its main office to that end of the district in order to collect more revenue. Believe me, the haul didn't resemble what was found at Sutter's Mill way back when, but the district did make a relevant point with the move about how splitting the equity formula into two regionally-based calculations.

As much as I've worked on the equity formula over the years, it may be time for it to go the way of the dinosaur. It's been amended a number of times and (trying to be charitable here) those amendments haven't helped make the equity program more equitable or the state education funding system more equitable. As education funding reform is considered, a new approach to the challenges caused by disparities in funding is warranted. While 1859 shouldn't pass (as Northfield can't afford to lose the approximately $10,000 the change would cost them), it is important that bills like it are introduced so that the Legislature can revisit the historical record and determine whether or not the bases upon which the current array of formulas were built remain valid.

Another $300 Plus Million Up! The February budget forecast was released today and it contained another dose of good news. The revenue uptick reported in this forecast amounts to $323 million. Of this amount, $5 million will go toward replenishing the budget reserve to its statutorily-mandated level of $653 million, with the remaining $318 million going to buy back the state aid portion of the education funding shift. The $318 million will reduce the shift by approximately 4 percentage points. My only hope is that when the education funding bill is passed that it is made crystal clear that this additional revenue is going toward repayment of the shift and NOT to school district bottom lines.

I haven't had time to do an in-depth analysis of the revenue forecast, but I hope to be able to do that in the next couple of days.

The Oscars. I only watch the Oscars for their sheer entertainment value, but when I was watching the other night, I thought to myself "What if we made a movie about SEE?" Comedy or drama? Blockbuster or small art-house indie flick? 3-D or not? Animated? About the only thing I could settle on was George Clooney will portray Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Denny Carlson. Everything else is up in the air.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Laboring. The House Education Reform Committee spent this morning's meeting involved in the annual debate between school districts and the resort industry (and the State Fair) over when school can start. For over 20 years, school districts in Minnesota have not been able to start school prior to Labor Day unless a waiver is obtained (or special legislation passed) to allow it. The nail was pounded into the board again this year, as the same arguments that have been used for the past 20 years (on both sides) saw the light of day again. The bill--HF 2325--is authored by Representative Connie Doepke (R-Orono). The bill passed out of committee on a voice vote and was referred to the floor. It is expected that opponents of the measure will attempt to have HF 2325 referred to back to committee (which one is unclear at this juncture) when it is reported to the floor on Thursday.

The House also dealt with Representative Carol McFarlane's (R-White Bear Lake) HF 1073, a bill that would encourage school districts to create learning plans for their students as they enter 9th grade to help them fashion their curricular decisions to match their career and academic interests. While not controversial on its face, we only have to recall the discussions of the Profile of Learning back in the late-20th century to appreciate the fact if presented carelessly, bills like HF 1073 can cause quite a furor. Of course, Representative McFarlane, as a SEE veteran, avoided all the pitfalls and clearly presented how this bill will help students, school districts, and post-secondary institutions.

It was "don't blink or you'll miss it" in the House Education Finance Committee this afternoon. The committee heard five bills (four of them local fund transfer bills) in record time, adjourning after a mere 35 minutes.

Things picked back up again in the Senate Education Committee. After taking testimony (but no action as the bill was not officially in the committee's jurisdiction) on the United South Central school district's cooperative facilities grant request (SF 1963-Rosen-R-Fairmont), attention returned to Senator Gen Olson's (R-Minnetrista) SF 1531, a bill that would expand the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program to qualified 9th and 10th graders. The bill would also make private, for-profit vocational schools eligible to receive students under the program.

There are some obvious issues with the SF 1531. Making private, for-profit institutions eligible to receive students and, by extension, the revenue allotted to them is a dicey proposition. Further, more and more school districts have been creating dual-enrollment "college in the schools" programs in order to keep students on their high school campus and earning college credits without changing learning environments. The problem that Senator Olson has accurately pointed out is that the lion's share of the post-secondary opportunities accessed by students are academic, and not technical, in nature.

What has happened to career and technical education in Minnesota over the past couple of decades is really tragic. There are ample explanations for the demise of these programs, ranging from changes in the career and technical education funding formula (first true formula increase in more than a decade was passed last session) to the stress on basic skills testing that has absorbed an increasing role in the school year (and school day) and, as a result, has prevented many students from being able to take career and technical education courses. Senator Olson, as a passionate and tireless advocate for career and technical education, wants to see more students exposed to these programs, as they may consist of both the most appropriate learning environment for these students and a curriculum that will engage them and keep them in school.

The bill was laid over (for the third time) as the clock ran out for the day. I'll keep you posted on what's next for this one.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Short, Productive Monday. One can argue with the product, but the Senate pushed two education-related proposals forward on Monday; one on the Senate floor and one in the Senate Education Committee. HF 1870, the bill that allows school districts to base unrequested leave of absence (lay-off) policy on teacher evaluation outcomes rather than seniority, passed the Senate floor by a vote of 36-26. There was an amendment added to the bill in the Senate Education Committee relating to protections for probationary teachers, so the bill will have to return to the House, where the House will consider whether or not to accept the Senate amendment. If the amendment is accepted, the House will still have to approve the bill with a floor vote before the bill can be sent to the Governor. If the amendment is not accepted, a conference committee will be convened between the House and Senate to work out the minor difference that exists between the bills.

In either case, it won't be long before the bill ends up on the Governor's desk and it's anyone guess as to what the Governor will sign or veto the legislation. The one obvious "out" that opponents of the bill have is that there is a task force on teacher evaluation that is currently meeting and an argument can be made that this group should be able to finish its work before a wholesale change to the tenure system is enacted. Whether that is argument is reason enough for the Governor to veto the bill remains to be seen.

At any rate, kudos are in order for House author Representative Branden Petersen (R-Andover) and Senate author Senator Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park) for their hard work on the issue.

The Senate Education Committee passed SF 1917, another bill authored by Senator Wolf. SF 1917 is the Senate companion to HF 2293 (Davnie-DFL-Minneapolis), the bill that would extend the use of prone restraint for another year. Unlike HF 2293, which was laid over for further discussion, the committee passed SF 1917 after adding an amendment. The bill will now head to the Senate floor. I described the bill and the controversy surrounding it in an entry last week, but I would like to add again that this legislation is extremely important for the protection of students and staff, especially in settings that deal with considerable numbers of students who may become extremely violent periodically.

Programs like Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) are proving helpful in handling students with violent behavior patterns, but they likely will not eliminate periodic outbursts that can become incredibly violence. Opponents of extending the use of prone restraint contend that use of prone restraint does not change the behavior of violent students, but that is not the intent of prone restraint. Prone restraint is only used in emergency situations to protect students and staff and not to change long-term behavior patterns of students on whom it is used.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Weekend Update. It's Saturday and I'm live, but it's not 10:30 PM yet, so my ratings probably won't be as high as they are when Seth Meyers gives you the news later. I didn't get a chance to close the circle on the last few education-related hearings last week. Let me tell you, Thursday was a wall-to-wall day with all Education Committees going full blast. The morning started with the tensest meeting of the day as the House Education Reform Committee tackled HF 2293 (Davnie-DFL-Minneapolis), the bill that would extend the use of prone restraint, the method of subduing students with extreme emotional issues who act out violently in classrooms. Use of prone restraint was curbed by a pronunciamento issued by the Minnesota Department of Education early in 2011. If the Legislature had not intervened last session and included a provision that allowed continued use of prone restraint for another year in last year's omnibus education bill, prone restraint would have gone the way of the dinosaur. As it is, the Legislature must act on (and the Governor must approve) an extension again this year if the procedure is to remain allowed.

Prone restraint is a very controversial procedure. Some states have prohibited it, but most have not. Controversial as it may be, it is also necessary in some instances as a small number of students, especially those who attend programs like those offered at the intermediate school districts and a number of special education cooperatives, have extremely violent episodes that threaten the safety of staff and other students.

I don't want to go off on a rant here (but I will), but the fact that the Legislature has been forced to address this issue is what gets under my skin. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), without consulting the authors of the bill that established the procedure and definitions that govern the use of seclusion and restraint or seeking clarification of the statute by proposing legislative language, simply announced that prone restraint was to be prohibited. Wish I could change the law with that level of dispatch. Seriously, an issue as important (and controversial) as prone restraint should have been dealt with at the legislative level and MDE's unilateral decision to prohibit its use was an inappropriate end run around the process.

HF 2293 was laid over for further discussion. A number of groups involved with the issue will be meeting in an attempt to fashion a compromise (which will be difficult to forge), leaving the issue unresolved for now. HF 2293's Senate companion--SF 1917 (Wolf-R-Spring Lake Park)--be be heard in the Senate on Monday.

A bill heard in both the House and Senate on Thursday was HF 2329 (Holberg-R-Lakeville)/SF 1908 (Hall-R-Burnsville), a bill that would require that school districts provide one-time training to all students in CPR and automatic external defibrillator operation at least one time during their junior and senior high school curriculum. A number of school districts are already doing this and the instruction usually takes half an hour or so and does not have to be provided by teaching staff. Instruction can be provided by local public safety or medical personnel. I need to hear from anyone who believes this mandate (and when something says "must," it's a mandate regardless of how well-intentioned) is going to cause a problem for them.

Elsewhere on Thursday, the House Education Finance Committee heard SF 946, the bill I authored in the House by House Education Reform Chair Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) that passed the Senate last session. Under the bill, a set of school districts can cooperate and extricate themselves from rules and regulations they see as thwarting innovation and driving up costs without increasing results. The bill passed the panel and will be heading to the House floor.

The Senate, after hearing the CPR bill and finishing up work on the bill that would allowed ninth and tenth graders to participate in PSEO, heard a report on Minnesota's achievement gap from StarTribune columnist and Center for the American Experiment contributor Katherine Kersten. Agree with her or not, Kersten has never impressed me as someone who continually goes offhalf-cocked and her report, while containing a number of viewpoints that don't reflect the consensus view of what should be done about the achievement gap, should contribute to the discussion.

Congratulations to Melrose. As a former gymnastics parent who sat through a few state championship meets, I wanted to congratulate the Melrose gymnastics team on winning the State Class A championship and Melrose gymnast Hailey Brinkman on winning the individual title. Unseating Perham as state team champions is no small feat. Perham, under the direction of coaching legend (and gentleman) Charlie Fleck, had won eight straight team titles and his roster of gymnasts has been comprised of countless individual event champions. So big time props to Melrose Coach Katie Masog (a former state champ herself) and the Lady Dutchmen!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And Now. . .The Rest of the Story. Didn't even get through my blogging this afternoon, so I'm back again tonight to re-cap the legislative action on Tuesday and Wednesday (but not in Paul Harvey fashion).

The last hearing on Tuesday was the Senate Education Committee, which dedicated itself to the bill (HF 1870) that would implement a teacher lay-off system that does not use seniority in the unrequested leave of absence equation. It does need to be pointed out that nothing exists in current Minnesota law that precludes the local bargaining process from implementing a lay-off system based on factors other than seniority, but tradition (and inertia) seems to have made seniority and, by extension, "last in/first out" the primary method of determining who gets laid off.

The Senate first heard this bill as SF 1690 last week before HF 1870 passed off the House floor. The Senate then waited until today to continue its deliberation on the bill. The discussion hasn't changed that much. Education Minnesota keeps mentioning the point I cited above about local bargaining not preventing the implementation of lay-off frameworks that don't rely as heavily on seniority, but those arguments aren't getting much of a foothold. Another item mentioned in opposition to the bill during yesterday's testimony was that passing this bill would disrupt the work of the task force that has been working on the teacher evaluation model required in last year's legislation.

For as much as I think task forces should be able to do the work that is set in front of them, I don't see that much of a problem in letting the Legislature speak on issues that may be before a task force. One of the problems I have witnessed over the last couple of decades is that the Legislature sometimes passes vague laws and doesn't give a task force, commission, or state department enough direction as to legislative intent of a bill. As a result, these bodies often produce reports or implement programs that don't meet with legislative approval. In other words, when the Legislature speaks with clarity, it should be welcomed. One can agree or disagree with what the Legislature has done or its stated intent in regard to a piece of legislation, but by making statements that clearly describe what the Legislature wants to have happen on a certain issue saves time and money and helps both proponents and opponents of a legislative action hone their arguments. In other words, it clears the fog out of the room.

HF 1870 will now head to the Senate floor where it is expected to pass. Whether or not it's a "dead bill walking" as it heads down to the Governor's office for its signature or veto is a question to which we are all awaiting an answer.

House Education Finance, Wednesday, 2/22 (Not in Room 222). Nope, the meeting was in Room 5 of the State Office Building, but I couldn't help myself trying to play with a little piece of pop culture and mention the school house drama from the late-1960s/early-1970s, "Room 222" starring Michael Constantine as principal Seymour Kaufmann, Lloyd Haynes as teacher Pete Dixon, and Karen Valentine as teacher Alice Johnson. Anyway, back to Planet Earth. . .

The House Education Finance Committee spent most of its time discussing the Qualified Economic Offer bargaining system. This bill that was passed by the House last year as part of its Omnibus Education Funding Bill and included in the version of the bill that was vetoed by the Governor at the end of the 2011 session.

The Qualified Economic Offer is very straightforward. Under its framework, a school board can, at any juncture of the bargaining process, limit the increase in the teacher's contract to the percentage increase in the general education basic formula passed by the Legislature in the previous year. Needless to say, this puts a damper on salary increases and teachers are obviously opposed to this approach.

This bill was laid over and I fully expect it to be part of the House Omnibus Education Bill again this year. And, as was the result last session, I don't see it becoming law. I do, however, expect it to be part of the discussion during the campaign season.

Senate Education, Wednesday. The Senate Education Committee covered two bills on Wednesday. The first was SF 451 (Stumpf), a bill that would increase the career and technical levy formula and also clear up language related to the ability of school districts to offer science and mathematics graduation requirements in career and technical education classes. I can't say enough about how career and technical educators are raising the bar in their programs and delivering academic content in applied settings. Funding for career and technical education programs has suffered over the past two decades and the time has come to bolster funding levels in order to provide high quality learning opportunities for students who learn best in applied settings.

The Senate also heard SF 1531, which would expand student eligibility to participate in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program to qualified 9th and 10th graders. The PSEO program has been quite a success (with a rare wart and some hard feelings) and expanding it judiciously is probably a step in the right direction (but let me stress "judiciously").

Border Battles. Not every border battle involves teams from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin. The new legislative district boundaries that will take effect for the 2012 election were released on Tuesday and some very interesting pairings of existing legislators will result as part of the process. 46 incumbent legislators (16 Senators and 30 Representatives) find themselves "doubled up" in the same district as a result of the reapportionment process. In a number of these instances, an incumbent will either choose not to run or, in the more isolated case, move to an open district.

My days of political hackery are behind me so I don't follow this process as closely as I once did, but I found several things a bit curious. Among them:
  • I still find it hard to believe that the 8th Congressional District will come all the way down to Chisago County. I figured that Congresswoman Bachmann would be paired with another member of Minnesota's current Congressional delegation, but I thought it would be freshman member Chip Cravaack and not 4th District member Betty McCollum. St. Cloud remains part of the 6th Congressional District and I thought it would move to the 8th or the 7th, with the southern portion of the resulting 8th Congressional District being shifted into the 6th. So much for my guess.
  • I still can't believe that Rice County is split into two different Senate Districts. Prior to 2002, Rice County was pretty much a "north/south" district that contained both Northfield and Faribault. In 2002, the county was split into two "east/west" districts and I'm surprised that pattern was retained.
  • The "communities of interest" framework didn't seem to be followed all that closely in the inner-ring suburbs, which look like they were designed with an egg beater. Part of the reason for that is that the districts in the urban core needed to pick up population and, as a result, had to move into the first-ring suburbs to accomplish that. This started a ripple effect that split a number of suburbs and placed them in two (or three) legislative districts. While "communities of interest" methodology doesn't necessarily confine itself to municipal boundaries, this map doesn't seem to follow much of any methodology.
You'll probably want to pick up a scorecard for the comings and goings of the next month. District conventions to endorse legislative candidates will be meeting soon and legislative candidates will have to decide if and where they will run. Unlike congressional candidates, legislative candidates must live in their district for at least six months prior to the November election. That means candidates will have to be in place no later than the first week of May. Who knows, there may be some prime properties to sublet. Watch those Want Ads.

Back to Work! I couldn't blog last evening, so I'll have to do double-duty today to get the readers caught up on the past few days at the Legislature. The only education-related action that took place on Monday was the Senate Education Committee hearing, which focused on two bills; Senator Joe Gimse's (R-Willmar) HF 1585, a bill that shortens the time that a school must make to join an athletic conference from 180 days to 90 days before the Minnesota State High School can be asked to arrange membership, and Senator Sean Nienow's (R-Cambridge) SF 1165, a bill that would tighten reporting criteria for children you may have been victims of maltreatment.

Things picked up yesterday, with spirited discussion in both the House and Senate. Tuesday's always a long day with the House Education Reform Committee meeting in the morning and the House Education Finance Committee and the Senate Education Committee meeting in the afternoon.

House Education Committee. The House Education Reform Committee dealt with two bills. First up was HF 2180, a bill authored by House Education Finance Committee Chair Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) that would require school districts that fail to meet specific achievement levels to submit a school "turnaround" plan. Representative Garofalo's bill appears to further, along with Representative Pam Myhra's (R-Burnsville), a good faith difference between the education leadership in the Legislature and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). MDE sought and received a waiver from the burdensome No Child Left Behind law, but to do that, it had to demonstrate that the student and school assessment systems would meet certain Federal guidelines and not erode the commitment to closing the achievement gap. It appears that the Legislature would like to go further than the waiver in several areas and HF 2180 clearly does that in fairly concise (some would say "overly prescriptive") language. One is tempted to say the debate between the Legislature and the Administration on this item is a living version of the song "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better," but I believe both sides are trying their best to wrestle through a difficult subject and there is room for a broad range of opinion on this set of issues.

The bill was recommended to pass and referred to the House Education Finance Committee.

Next up was SF 946, authored by House Education Policy Chair Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton). SF 946, authored in the Senate by Senator Al DeKruif (R-Madison Lake) passed the full Senate late last session on a 36-25 vote (almost straight party-line). SF 946 would create a pilot project composed of a set of school districts working together to investigate how sharing of services may reduce costs and expand student opportunities. This bill, like HF 2180, was recommended to pass and referred to the House Education Finance Committee.

House Education Finance Committee. The committee heard three bills. The first was HF 2127, authored by Representative Pam Myhra (R-Burnsville) and is the companion to Senator Carla Nelson's (R-Rochester) SF 1528. The bill was recommended to pass and was sent to the House floor. SF 1528 is already on the Senate floor after passing through two Senate committees and will likely pass within the next couple of weeks.

Things heated up a bit with the discussion of HF 329, Representative Kurt Bills' proposal to prohibit the use of school property in the advocacy of legislation, ballot questions, or behalf of a candidate for political office. Use of school funds for belonging to an organization that lobbies the Legislature is exempt from the prohibition. The bill seeks to clarify (some would say "make operational") a District Court ruling that stated that the Lakeville school district's decision to prohibit the distribution of campaign literature in teachers' school mail boxes was not a violation of the First Amendment concerning freedom of speech. The bill was recommended to pass.

The remainder of the Committee's time was devoted to HF 2244, the bill that would create a new management system for Minnesota's school trust lands. The bill is authored by Representative Tim O'Driscoll (R-Sartell) and continues the work begun on this issue by Representative Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin). The need for the bill arises from dissatisfaction of some with the management of school trust lands by the Department of Natural Resources. The amount of money generated from these lands lags well behind that of other states and it is believed that lease revenue from use of the land for mineral exploration and mining, timber harvesting, and recreational purposes and should be enhanced and enhanced dramatically and that a new management structure is crucial to that effort.

The proposed management structure would be a commission composed of legislators and members of the general public. Proponents of the legislation believe that this framework would promote greater legislative interest in the school trust lands and citizen involvement would help create a balanced approach between the ability to generate revenue and protect the environment. There is also a contention put forward that the Department of Natural Resources have been using proceeds from the earnings from the lands to fund agency operations instead of putting that revenue into the pool to be distributed to school districts.

Opponents of the bill fall into two basic categories. Environmental protection interests believe that this change would open up the school trust lands, many of which are in what could be classified as environmentally sensitive areas, to a mad dash for revenue "at any cost," which they believe would be unwise. The Department of Natural Resources, the state agency currently responsible for management of these properties, also opposes the bill.

Discussion of the bill got a bit heated, as some believe it merely puts a "possible" bandage on the underfunding of schools. That is really beside the point. A strong case has been made for the need for more revenue for education in Minnesota (SEE has helped make it), but that's an entirely different issue from getting the maximum return--in an environmentally responsible way--on land which is intended to help provide revenue for schools. For those not familiar with this issue, the school trust lands are largely comprised of the township sections that were set aside for educational purposes, first in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (Section 16) and then expanded to include Section 36 of each township when Minnesota became a state in 1858.

The bill passed on a close vote and was referred to the Environmental Finance Committee.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking Back. Looking Ahead. I missed a couple of stories from my wrap-up of last week and thought I'd chime in before the start of the new week. The House Education Finance Committee took a return trip to Florida (figuratively) to discuss Representative Pam Myhra's (R-Burnsville) HF 648 last Wednesday. HF 648 would implement an A through F grading system for all schools in Minnesota, with a number of indicators determining a school's grade. A grading system of this type was part of a set of reforms passed in Florida a few years back and is credited by some with helping boost achievement in that state.

The problem with the proposal is that it appears to be redundant given the waiver from NCLB that Minnesota received from the federal government just over a week ago. While the plan that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) submitted to the US Department of Education upon which the waiver was granted uses a bulk of the indicators included in HF 648, it does not spell out "hard" letter grades to school districts. There are some who believe that providing letter grades to schools is the most transparent way to deal with the issue of achievement, but would letter grades tell the whole story? Further, the plan that will be implemented by MDE will have two sets of underachieving schools that will be labeled as Priority Schools or Focus Schools.

As I am wont to do (and my tongue is firmly in my cheek), I think I can come up with a compromise that incorporates parts of both plans. I would suggest five classes of schools: Awesome Schools, Beneficial Schools, Competent Schools, Defective Schools, and Frightful Schools. Eh. Come to think of it, maybe Priority and Focus work better.

Diane Ravitch Uses Another "F" Location. Forsaking "all things Florida," education thinker/writer Dr. Diane Ravitch, in reviewing Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, zeroes in on the education system in Finland as one to be emulated as the United States attempts to raise its student achievement. Ravitch points out four reasons why the Finnish model may be one to study more closely:
  1. Finland has one of the highest-performing school systems in the world as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA);
  2. Finland has rejected most of the reforms currently being considered in the United States, particularly the heavy regimen to testing prescribed by NCLB;
  3. Finland have the least variation in educational quality district-to-district among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations; and
  4. Finland borrowed most of its ideas from American pre-NCLB educational philosophy.
The centerpiece of Finland's system, in Ravitch's eyes, is its concentration on teacher training. Teacher preparation programs are highly selective in who they enroll and the program participants graduate with a master's degree. Subject matter teachers earn their master's degree not in teacher education, but in subject areas.

I am going to try and obtain re-printing rights to the article and hopefully post it on the website in the near future. In the meantime, head out to your local Barnes & Noble and grab a copy of the March 8, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books. It's a fun paper in which to indulge one's self.

Sunday StarTribune. The StarTribune has been doing a great job covering education issues during the legislative session and Sunday's edition was no different. The opinion page featured a piece from Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher outlining his organization's opposition to HF 1870/SF 1690, the bill that would require districts to base all layoffs on merit instead of seniority. Whatever one feels about the approach advocated in HF 1870/SF 1690, the Dooher article does summarize the points of contention very clearly.

Eric Wieferring wrote a great piece on Minnesota's property tax system that highlighted many of the problems that have emanated from the 2001 decision to eliminate the general education levy and replace it with a statewide business property tax and subsequent decisions to reduce aids to local units of government. While Wieferring didn't single out referendum equalization (my guess is he's not familiar with the program) as one of the property taxpayer aids that has lost value in real terms, it appears that it would fit nicely in Weiffering's critique. I can't find a link on the StarTribune webpage, but the column is on the front of Sunday's Business Section.

Education System "Anachronistic?" The presidential campaign is always good for a few hoots, but I was hardly hooting when I read Republican candidate Rick Santorum's comment from Saturday in which he questioned the relevance of the current education system in the United States. Santorum and his wife have home-schooled their five children and that is all well and good, but to question the United States' commitment to creating and maintaining a system that has helped build a strong middle class and is the key to our country remaining competitive in the world had me shaking my head. Our system has some issues that need to be addressed, but our commitment to providing comprehensive access to educational opportunity remains among the highest in the world and it's something we should retain and not assign to the dustbin of history.

Looking Ahead. Two big items on the agenda for the week ahead. On Tuesday, the new legislative district boundaries will be announced and I can assure you there will be more than a few long faces among the legislators as they see the geography of their new districts. Some may be paired with other legislators while others will have significant amounts of "new" territory in their district. Some districts may be vacant. In other words, there will be shuffling in the months ahead.

On Wednesday, the House Education Finance Committee will hear HF 1858, Representative Duane Quam's (R-Byron) bill that would require that school district operating referenda be held only on general election day in even numbered years. This would make a difficult situation even more difficult for school districts that are seeking to augment their funding with voter-approved levies. I expect that there will be a large (and spirited) turnout for the hearing.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Week That Just Flew By. While it remains to be seen how much progress was made during this week, it certainly was a busy week for education-related policy at the Capitol. The action took place in the House and Senate education-related committees, the House and Senate tax committees, and the House and Senate floors.

The first step toward the repeal of teacher tenure on the House floor took place with the passage of HF 1870 (B. Petersen-R-Andover) by a vote of 68-61, with several majority legislators voting against the measure. The long debate I expected didn't materialize, as a motion to send the bill back to committee failed on a 60-70 vote and only one amendment was offered. The amendment, which states explicitly that a teacher's earnings cannot be used as the reason for placing a teacher on unrequested leave of absence or demotion, passed on voice vote. I doubt the inclusion of the amendment will mollify Education Minnesota to the extent it will support the bill, but it clearly marks some sensitivity toward the argument that the "teacher quality" effort is less about effectiveness and more about efficiency.

SF 247, the bill which requires school board approval before a local bargaining unit can move its health care coverage to the Public Employee Insurance Program (PEIP), also passed the House floor on a vote of 71-58. The House author of SF 247 is Representative Joe Hoppe, a Republican from Chaska. With the inability of the statewide health care pool proposed by Education Minnesota to successfully become law, many local teacher bargaining units have proposed to move to the PEIP program. In some instances, the PEIP insurance is more expensive than the coverage that a district currently provides. SF 247 would ensure that health coverage remain a "bargained" issue at the local level and that both school boards and local bargaining units would have to approve a move to PEIP.

Not to be left out of the education debate, the Senate gave preliminary approval to SF 1073 (Nelson-R-Rochester), a bill that "encourages" school districts to assist students to plan their academic courseload to make them more prepared for college and career. The bill states that the assistance should be made available to students no later than the ninth grade. This is permissive language, so it cannot be classified as a mandate, but the author believes the language will highlight the need for students to be more intentional about their post-high school plans and for schools to help them prepare for success. SF 1073 will be up for final approval on Monday.

Tax Committee Is the Place to Be. It's always fun to wander into the Tax Committee (both in the House and Senate) and I'm hoping to do more of it during the remainder of this session and in future sessions. Property tax inequity is SEE's top issue and I had the opportunity to discuss that inequity during the Senate's hearing on the report on the Metropolitan Fiscal Disparities Program on Thursday. I've been singing the praises of Senate Tax Chair Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) for the past couple of weeks for her interest in school levies and the Tax Committee's role in monitoring those levies. Thursday's hearing was another instance where the discussion of education levies--although not central to the discussion of the fiscal disparities program--was aired.

It will probably be a long slog, but involving the House and Senate tax committees in the discussion of the equalization programs relating to education levies and the need for greater property tax fairness on education-related levies is crucial to SEE being successful in its mission to make certain that "education by zip code" does become entrenched in Minnesota's education funding system.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wednesday was Tax Committee Day. Most of SEE's action today came while watching the House and Senate Tax Committees. Both the House Property Tax Division and full Tax Committee heard a presentation by Julie Berlands, a principal with the Maryland-based analysis firm of TischlerBise on Minnesota's Fiscal Disparities Program. The study was commissioned by the Legislature in 2010.

The Fiscal Disparities Program--a tax-base sharing program for the 7-county metropolitan area--was established in 1971 as a lesser-known provision in the Minnesota Miracle Framework. Under the program, 40% of the growth in the commercial/industrial tax base in every metropolitan area city/township goes into a metropolitan area pool, where it is re-distributed to help hold down property taxes in areas with lower levels of property wealth (Warning! This is a very simplistic explanation of the program.).

Obviously, the areas with higher levels of commercial and industrial property don't like the program much, as they are generally contribute more to the pool than they receive in benefit and believe that to be unfair. While I can understand their unhappiness, the yield/effort ratio in those areas is still considerably higher even after their contribution to the fiscal disparities pool than it is in the lower property wealth areas that receive benefits under the program.

The tax base for a number of school levies is affected and it is also an advantage for low property wealth school districts in the metropolitan area. While the report contains no recommendations that would reverse the program, doing so would be disastrous for these districts--many of which are SEE members--by heightening the property tax sensitivity in these areas. I was set to testify and point this out, but time ran out at both hearings.

Meanwhile in the Senate. Eric Naumann had the opportunity to finish his presentation on property tax levies in the education funding system this morning. As you recall, he ran out of time due to spirited discussion when he started his presentation a couple of weeks back. Today's hearing also featured testimony by SEE member Central School District's Superintendent Brian Corlett. Dr. Corlett gave a great synopsis of the "world according to SEE," pointing out a number of inequities that exist in the current array of property tax levies.

As I said the last time the Senate Tax Committee covered education funding, I really want to commend Chair Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) and Senate Fiscal Analyst Eric Nauman for their great work; Senator Ortman for putting this issue on the radar and Mr. Nauman for doing such a comprehensive job explaining a very complicated subject.

The Senate Tax Committee will be covering the Fiscal Disparities Program tomorrow.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quick Post for Monday, February 13. Not a lot to report for today. The Senate Education meeting covered SF 1690 (Wolf-R-Spring Lake Park), the bill that would allow school districts to lay off teachers according to their performance as opposed to seniority. It is the companion to HF 1870 (B. Petersen-R-Andover) which passed out of the House Education Policy Committee last Thursday evening. The testifiers and testimony was almost a carbon copy of what was seen in the House Education Policy Committee. The only deviation was testimony from the Foley school district that highlighted a "bargained" unrequested leave-of-absence system between the district's teachers and the school board. Time ran out, so there will be additional testimony later this week or early next week. As in the case of the House bill, the Senate bill will be traveling on its own and will not be part of a larger omnibus bill. As it stands right now, obtaining the Governor's signature may prove difficult, as a letter from Commissioner Cassellius to the bill's authors outlines some deep concerns she--and by extension the Governor--has with the bill. Stay tuned.

Speaking of the Commissioner. After obtaining a waiver from NCLB for Minnesota, I've decided that all Minnesota sports franchises should be re-named "The Commissioners," as she is undefeated while Minnesota's teams aren't faring nearly as well. Seriously, congratulations to the Commissioner and MDE staff for fashioning a proposal that will create an accountability system that is more applicable to Minnesota's needs while ensuring a broad range of quality measurements.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Night Meetings, Night Meetings (We Know How to Do It). Apologies to the Brothers Gibb, but the phrasing just worked to well to let pass. I neglected to post after last Thursday's House Education Policy Committee meeting, but I had to mark the first (of not too many I hope) education-related night meetings. The meeting was dedicated to finishing the committee's proceedings on HF 1870, Representative Branden Petersen's (R-Andover) bill on removing seniority as the primary determinant of how teachers are put on unrequested leave of absence (or, in common parlance, laid off). This particular hearing on the bill began during its regularly-appointed morning time slot (testimony on the bill had been taken the previous week prior to the legislative recess for precinct caucuses) and the debate became, in polite terms, a bit heated. A number of amendments were discussed and several were placed on the bill prior to the committee recessing until 6 PM.

The night portion of the hearing was more subdued and frayed nerves were soothed. Clearly, there are two different schools for thought at work here and opponents of the bill do have a point in that seniority is not always the sole, or even primary, determinant in how layoff decisions are made. Further, one can't help but wonder how many "bad" teachers are actually out there and whether or not a true crisis exists in this area. Another problem is that under HF 1870, layoffs would be based on teacher performance as measured by district teacher evaluation plans that would be implemented in the wake of last session's teacher evaluation law. Opponents made the point that school districts have yet to implement their teacher evaluation plans, making it difficult to measure the effect on layoff decisions. In other words, there is mistrust on the part of teachers that hiring hi-jinks will ensure if this bill were to come into law without first having an idea of what the teacher evaluation framework will look like, both statewide and in individual districts.

At the same time, there is ample frustration on the part of school districts throughout the state that it is simply too difficult to transition teachers who are falling short in the classroom out of the profession and that a more data-driven approach to assessing teachers and allowing districts more flexibility in assembling its teaching force on a year-to-year basis without the hobbles of strict seniority needs to be in place. Whether or not that process is contained in HF 1870 remains to be seen.

In a related note, the primary editorial in the Sunday Minneapolis StarTribune trumpeted support for HF 1870. Link:

Speaking of Editorials. Sunday's StarTribune also featured dueling editorials (not to be confused with dueling banjos) on the legislatively-mandated report on integration revenue that was ordered as part of last year's omnibus education funding bill. The editorial page editor praised the report while Katherine Kersten, who served on the 12-member commission that took testimony on the subject, wrote an editorial that questioned the whole notion of a revenue stream aimed at the "physical" desegregation of students.

It's hard to say what will happen on this issue. There is no need for action to be taken this year, although the possibility exists that the Legislature may pass a "message" bill that the Governor would likely veto. I'll have a blurb below regarding the Governor's veto of four bills passed by the Legislature earlier this session relating to lawsuit reform that may be an indication that the Governor could have a pretty good case of writer's cramp from composing veto messages this session.

Anyhow, here are the editorials on integration revenue.

About Those Vetoes. As I mentioned above, the Governor vetoed four bills relating to tort reform as soon as they hit his desk last week. Labeling the bills as a "sop" for the insurance industry, the Governor took little time to establish his position on what he views to be "message bills" the Legislature may pass. If this is any indication, there will be a lot of "dead bills walking" as the Legislature may pass much of its platform across-the-board without seeking gubernatorial input. On the bright side, it will save a lot of time in the composition of legislative campaign literature as one side can cut-and-paste sections of vetoed bills into its pieces, while the other can simply do the same with gubernatorial veto messages.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Back into the Fray. The House and Senate reconvened after their break for precinct caucuses and they tore back into it, especially in the Senate where they took up and passed several bills related to the filing of civil lawsuits. If today's proceedings are any indication, things are going to be spicy for the remainder of the session as the debate was prolonged and thorough. It's not like the opposition to the bills was petty; there are some major changes in how civil lawsuits will be handled and these changes have a lot of support in the business community. DFLers believe the changes go too far and hence, the debate.

Here is a link on today's Senate floor action:

The Senate Education Committee met later in the day and the lion's share of the committee's time was dedicated to the proposed social studies standards and SF 1656, a bill introduced by Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) that would require legislative approval on the revised social studies standards that are in the midst of being developed. The state Social Studies standards have always been the most controversial of the sets of standards developed for measuring the academic achievement of Minnesota students. The controversy surrounding social studies stanards, especially those relating to history (both American and World), is not isolated to Minnesota. One need only remember the debate by the Texas State School Board surrounding what students should learn to realize that the nature (and interpretation) of many subjects under the social studies umbrella are, for lack of a better term, more subjective (although there is a lot of objective knowledge in these subjects) than those in mathematics and natural science.

Here's my view from the cheap seats. When the social studies standards were developed in 2004, it was truly an ordeal. Both sides in the (again, for lack of a better term) culture wars insisted on having a certain sets of items included in the standards. Try as they might, the Minnesota Department of Education and the Legislature could not come to agreement on an abbreviated set of broad standards into which individual items could be incorporated. Both sides stuck to having as many of these isolated facts and movements spelled out specifically in the standards, which made the standards an unwieldy 120-page conglomeration.

I was not part of the development of the new social studies standards, but I can only guess that one of the goals of the groups working on them was to pare down references to specific items and organize the standards in a more streamlined fashion. Of course, when one gets out the blue pencil and starts editing, people start getting uncomfortable. This discomfort has affected both poles of the debate over the social studies standards, as the "perceived as conservative" Fordham Institute published a harsh review of the proposed standards, as did the "perceived as liberal" Southern Poverty Law Center. Needless to say, this debate will be center stage for the remainder of the legislative session. It's important to note that the effort to revise the social studies standards began during the previous administration, so it is difficult to discern how much "ownership" over the process Governor Dayton (and by extension, Commissioner Cassellius) believes he has. At any rate, it will make for another interesting discussion to watch in the days and weeks ahead.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Two Great Hearings. It's not often that one gets treated to two great hearings in one day, but that's what happened for me today as both the Senate Tax and Senate Education Committees had informative hearings. The Tax Committee devoted a portion of its meeting to the effect of education-related levies on the property tax system as a whole. As you know, one of my pet peeves since the establishment of the referendum equalization program is the difficulty to get the equalization factors upgraded to reflect growth in property values. This has caused an erosion in the "value" of the program to property taxpayers in low property wealth districts, as the rising property values have increased the levy-to-aid ratio. Currently, a district below the equalizing factor pays more than two-and-one-half times in property taxes per $100,000 of property value than the district with the highest referendum market value in the state. When the current referendum equalization program was established in 1993, the effort per referendum dollar raised was nearly identical statewide. So, you can probably understand from where my sense of frustration emanates.

The reason for the lack of progress toward updating the referendum equalization factors is quite straightforward: there is a reluctance on the part of Education Finance Chairs (in both houses and of both parties) to use their resources to, in effect, make the property tax system more fair. Frankly, I can't blame them. The smorgasbord in the current education policy and funding debates provides the education-related committees with more than enough to discuss and more than enough tugs on the resources in their budget targets.

For this reason, I've tried on and off over the past decade to move the discussion of education-related property tax relief and reform into the domain of the Tax Committees in the House and Senate, but unfortunately, it's been difficult to get much traction. While we're a long way from establishing the discussion on the need for updating the equalization program in the Tax Committee, the atmosphere in the committee this morning appeared conducive to that move.

I want to commend a number of individuals, starting with Senate Tax Chair Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) for scheduling the hearing. Senator Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) did a great job of pointing out the problem of keeping the equalization program in the Education Committee. Senate Education Fiscal Analyst Eric Naumann has a marvelous Powerpoint presentation (discussion was so lively, he didn't get all the way through it) that I will try to get the "rights to" so I can post it on the SEE website. In all, it was a very rewarding hearing.

The Senate Education Committee heard a presentation from the Minnesota Department of Education on the waiver it is filing with the United States Department of Education and the new assessment system it is putting in place in order to be eligible to receive an award under the next phase of Race to the Top.

The new assessment system would create a number of categories that would recognize the level of achievement of schools. The assessment system would be based on four measures: (1) Proficiency--Are all the subgroups making their Annual Yearly Progress targets? (2) Growth--This would be measured by growth in average scores both by school and district. (3) Achievement Gap Reduction--This will have to be accomplished by the low-scoring subgroups improving more than the high-scoring subgroups. (4) Graduation rate--This is an added measure that promotes college and career readiness.

MDE presented this information in a Powerpoint and as in the case of the Powerpoint used in the Tax Committee, I will try to find a way to post this on our website.

Fiscal Disparities Report Posted. The final report of the working group that studied the Fiscal Disparities Program has been posted on the Minnesota Department of Revenue website. It will be discussed in the House and Senate Tax Committees in mid-February. The Fiscal Disparities Program has been of great importance in promoting property tax fairness in the metropolitan area and hopefully the program will either be retained or other measures that work to remedy the disparities caused by significant differences in property wealth will be adopted.

It should be an interesting discussion and I am ready to say my piece in defense of the underlying logic of the program.