Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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.

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