Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Time to Catch Up. It's been a few days since I've penned an entry and I'll try to get you caught up with the action (or lack thereof). The biggest story that is unfolding is a perceived "mad rush" to finish by April 5. The Legislature is taking a break from April 6 through April 13 and with most of the larger issues either decided, close to be decided, or having no chance of getting past a gubernatorial veto, it's not outside the realm of possibility to adjourn sine die (meaning "done for the biennium") by late next week.

In the education arena, the conference committee on HF 1870--the bill that changes tenure law and allows for layoffs not based centrally on seniority--met last Friday, March 23, and on Monday, March 26, and will be meeting again tomorrow (Thursday, March 29). The message of the conference committee members has been very clear: changes need to be made to the layoff system and the contents of HF 1870 does not "jump the gun" on the work being performed by the task force charged with making the language passed last session operational.

Most of the testimony presented thus far has supported that assertion. A member of the Washington, D.C., teachers' union testified in favor of the legislation, outlining how the establishment of a system similar to that outlined in HF 1870 has been successful in getting and keeping the best-equipped teachers in front of students. He also made clear his opposition to the current effective date of the 2014-2015 school year for the new teacher evaluation system. There has been other supportive testimony coming from advocates close to national organizations like Teach for America and Students First and the Minnesota-based education reform group MinnCan.

Some of the meetings have been a bit uncomfortable. Education Minnesota lobbyist Jan Alswager has been taking a broadside of attacks from the conference committee, with Education Minnesota being depicted as obstructionist in the face of inevitable (and welcome) change. Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius was also put on the defensive as she was questioned as to whether or not Governor Dayton would sign the bill. In that vein, the Governor was slated to meet with the bill's chief authors, Senator Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park) and Representative Branden Petersen (R-Andover), to talk about the legislation. This is a real wildcard moving forward, as the Governor hasn't tipped his hand at all on whether he embraces the further definition of the teacher evaluation system and that is something we are likely to discover in the coming days. I would not be surprised if the conference committee wraps up it work by the end of the week and sends the bill on to the Governor to meet its fate.

Long conference committee proceedings weren't in the cards for HF 2083, the bill that would buy back the school aids payment shift to 70%/30% by using revenue currently in the budget reserve. The House had put quite a bit of policy language in their version of the bill, all of which was struck from the bill by the Senate. The Senate added one minor provision after clearing the bill of the House policy provisions. The conference committee met and it was one of those lightening-fast conference committees where everything was pre-confereed and the committee met only to confirm the agreement. Under the agreement, all the policy language was dropped from the bill and the only thing remaining is the 70%/30% aid payment schedule language. The conference committee report will likely be approved in both bodies (it will start first in the House because it is a House File) by the end of the week and hit the Governor's desk shortly thereafter.

Other Action. The House has assembled another policy bill--HF 2949 chief-authored by House Education Finance Chair Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington)--that is flying through the process. The bill was unveiled in the House Education Finance Committee on Tuesday and was in the House Ways and Means Committee today. It met with approval (and very few amendments--successful or otherwise) at both stops.

Some of the language seeks to clarify provisions passed last year, while other provisions do provide some helpful reforms. One provision (Section 6) would repeal the 50%/25%/25% distribution formula for staff development revenue, while others (Sections 14 and 17) would make some helpful changes to fund transfer policy. Section 19 creates a Career and Technical Education Task Force that would hopefully be of assistance to students seeking those courses. In all, there twenty-two sections.

The problem with this bill is that there is no Senate companion and the Legislature is past the policy committee deadline, putting this bill in the legislative equivalent of the dead-letter office.

Celebration of Edginess. One of my all-time favorite movies is "True Stories" starring David Byrne. In that movie, a small Texas town plans a Celebration of Specialness. The House Ways and Means Committee had its own little Celebration of Edginess as it discussed HF 2580 (Loon-R-Eden Prairie) this afternoon. Things got a little on the warm side as tensions over the bill were expressed.

I have discussed HF 2580 in an earlier entry. The bill would allow 51% of parents in a "failing" school district to force the school into a "turnaround" strategy as outlined in the bill. The stated impetus for the bill is the need to close the achievement gap. But to opponents, the real cause is misuse of the achievement gap to break up teachers' unions.

House Education Finance Chair--also a member of the Ways and Means Committee--Representative Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) and Representative Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis) had a heated exchange over the bill, with Representative Champion contending--in vehement terms--that the bill uses the plight of the poor in an attempt to break the union. Representative Garofalo disputed that contention with equally strong language by pointing out that numerous Minneapolis parents have asked for this legislation.

The exchange continued with Representative Champion and fellow Minneapolis Representative Jean Wagenius saying that they had not heard from many (in the case of Representative Wagenius, any) parents asking for this legislation.

As voices became louder, Committee Chair Mary Liz Holberg (R-Lakeville) gaveled the discussion to an end and shortly thereafter, the bill moved forward with a recommendation to pass.

One Last Note. The bill that would extend the allowable use of prone restraint for one more year passed the House today by a vote of 116-16.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Week Winding Down. The second deadline passes tomorrow and the policy committees will have finished their work for the session. It's still unclear how many items will be heading to the floor on their own and how many will be folded into omnibus bills.

Things happened quickly in the House Education Finance Committee today, as three bills were heard. Nothing earth-shattering, but here are the bills.
  • HF 2792 (Doepke-R-Orono): Allows Wayzata to use lease levy for administrative space.
  • HF 2918 (Anzelc-DFL-Balsam Township): Modifies changes made to cost allocation process for special education transportation expenses made during the 2011 session.
  • HF 2939 (Downey-R-Edina): Makes changes to the school district detachment and annexation process by creating a parent petitioning process.
The Senate Education Committee went beyond its normally allotted hour-and-a-half and had a couple of very interesting discussions. The lion's share of the committee's time went to a bill that would establish a casino with video slots at Canterbury Park and, like the fate of SF 1046 (Senjem-R-Rochester) on Monday in the State Government and Innovation Committee, the bill did not meet with a positive fate. At the State Government and Innovation Committe, SF 1046 failed on a vote with five "yes" votes and eight "no" votes. The bill heard today in the Education Committee--SF 1909 (DeKruif-R-Madison Lake)--was very similar to the bill defeated on Monday and while it did not meet with outright defeat, the bill was placed on the table and with no further committee meetings scheduled, breathing life into the bill will prove extremely difficult.

This is another example of one of the odd aspects of this year's session. I have never seen a session when so many similar (sometimes identical) bills or bill provisions have been introduced by different authors and heard in different committees. Most of the time, it doesn't make a bit of difference as one bill takes precedence over the other and heads through the process by itself. Still, it has been a bit of a departure from accepted practice and it can make life more complicated for those trying to follow bills.

The committee also heard SF 2515 (Senjem-R-Rochester), the Senate companion to HF 2917 (Quam-R-Byron) that was heard yesterday in the House Education Finance Committee. I need to clarify my comments from yesterday, as I didn't get the explanation quite right. I was under the impression that the primary reason for the bill was the fact that the Stewartville and Byron school districts (both of which have a portion of the city of Rochester in their district) were adversely affected by Rochester's being granted city of the first class status last session. It is true that the Rochester move did cause problems for Stewartville and Byron, but Rochester's level of bonded indebtedness also put them dangerously close to the cap imposed on cities of the first class for that category. Rochester is projected to undergo continued growth over the next decade and the pressure for new facilities and facility upgrades may well push the district's bonded indebtedness over the cap for cities of the first class. Thus, a change is needed.

The committee also heard SF 2460 (Harrington-DFL-St. Paul). SF 2460 would allow charter schools where more than 60% of the school's students are eligible to participate in the high school graduation incentives program to be classified as an area learning center for student evaluation and graduation rate determination. The bill featured some wonderful testimony from high school students who are now on track to graduate after falling dramatically behind earlier in high school. There was some trepidation expressed over the bill, as the NCLB waiver received earlier this year has a number of very specific requirements pertaining to how low-performing schools will be treated. I can appreciate these concerns, but again, so much of the obsession with evaluation misses the fact that students' academic promise (heck, maybe even their lives) are saved by alternative educators and that maybe we should back off the evaluation schtick for both students and schools a bit and look at the big picture. Here's hoping that a more comprehensive view of learning can be established in the wake of the NCLB waiver and that Minnesota can retain its position as a leader in meeting the needs of students where they are and bringing them to a place where they can take their next life step comfortably.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Coda to Yesterday. I was typing so fast yesterday, that I didn't finish all my thoughts on the individualized learning bill and the career and technical education bills that have been discussed in the House and Senate Education Committees this session. To me (and this may just be me), it's ironic that we have heard so much about additional paths for student learning while at the same time hearing more and more (and more and more) about the achievement gap and the need to use standardized tests to measure student, teachers, and institutional performance. On the one hand, it's "blow up the system," while on the other, it's "use narrow assessment tools" to measure the "blown up" system. Oh, and by the way, do all of this as cheaply as possible. That just seems incongruent to me.

Not to launch myself up on the soap box, but we live in the richest country in the world at the richest era of human history and we can't seem to create an education system that meets students where they are and provide them with the necessary pathways to ably prepare for their futures. I've never seen the alternative education or charter school movements as threats to the traditional public education system. They should be complementary in nature, as students should have more public school options as opposed to less. Where I differ somewhat with the current mode of thinking is that student progress should be gauged through multiple measures and not simply standardized test performance.

The other angle that is not being discussed at all is that of resources. It's not an iron law of education finance, but generally, the more individualized you make the system, the greater the necessary investment to keep class sizes manageable, especially in applied education settings. Somehow, that element has been missing in the discussion thus far this year.

Wednesday Committees. The House Education Finance Committee and the Senate Education Committee met today and if their respective agendas are any indication, things are winding down quickly. The House Education Finance Committee heard two bills--HF 2838 (Howes-R-Walker) and HF 2917 (Quam-R-Byron)--and listened to a presentation on the importance of physical education in students' educational lives.

HF 2838 would provide an annual appropriation of $250,000 for the Bemidji school district on an on-going basis to help pay for their transportation costs. Bemidji is a very large school district and has been running a deficit in their transportation fund since the transportation formula was rolled into the general education formula. The transportation sparsity component of the general education formula simply doesn't meet the considerable transportation needs in Bemidji, which has prompted Representative Howes to sponsor this bill.

HF 2917 is something that needs to pass this session to help the Byron and Stewartville school districts, which found themselves located in a city of the first class after Rochester was classified as such through legislation last session. Because the Byron and Stewartville school districts edge into the city of Rochester, they would be governed by a debt limit that would cause problems for them. One of the big differences (and this isn't the case in Rochester yet) between school districts in cities of the first class and other school districts is that districts in cities of the first class can issue bonds without going to the voters provided the total bonded indebtedness is less than 0.7 % of the total market value of the school district. The bonded indebtedness in Byron and Stewartville clearly results from voter approved bonds, making this a situation that has to be remedied for them.

The Senate Education Committee covered four bills, three of which were relatively non-controversial. The only controversial bill was SF 2306 (Michel-R-Edina), the proposal that would allow the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul to run the school districts in those cities. I'm having a hard time figuring out the proponents of this bill viewing this as being an "extra tool in the tool box" to deal with the achievement gap. It is important to note that neither the Mayor of Minneapolis nor the Mayor of St. Paul has requested this bill.

The other bills were as follows:
  • SF 2158 (Dahms-R-Redwood Falls), which would authorize a fund transfer for New Ulm.
  • SF 2535 (Olson-R-Minnetrista), which would modify the regulations and fee structure for the Board of School Administrators.
  • SF 2482 (Olson-R-Minnetrista), which cleans up some language problems in programs (the Early Graduation Achievement Scholarship Program and the Literacy Incentives Program) passed last session.
Rumors Abound. As I reported yesterday, indications are that the Legislature may try to speed things up dramatically and finish prior to their planned Holiday Break, which is scheduled to begin on Friday, April 6. That would mean wall-to-wall proceedings for the next two weeks.

The "big furniture" bills are moving rapidly through the system (except for the bonding bill) and it wouldn't be much a stretch to get those bills to the Governor for likely vetoes. The question is more over other politically charged bills over which the Legislature may have some disagreement between the two bodies. One thing that has surprised me a bit this session is that the coordination between the House and Senate has not been as closely aligned as I thought it would be. This could spell trouble if either body wants to work with the Governor to pass something into law this session, as a truncated timeline may make it difficult to successfully negotiate differences that exist between the House and Senate versions of bills.

Anyway, I'll be there until the end whether it's April 6 or April 30 and I'll keep you posted on what is transpiring.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tuesday Report. It was a full day on Tuesday, as all three education-related committees met and discussed a slate of bills. The day began in the House Education Reform Committee with hearings on HF 682 (Kiel-R-Crookston) and HF 2658 (Doepke-R-Orono).

The purpose of HF 682 is to clarify that students can earn course credits for science in a career and technical education setting. A number of career and technical programs have been dramatically elevating the academic content in their course offerings. This has fostered several positive developments. First and foremost, many students learn better in applied settings and making certain these applied settings deliver a high level of academic content is crucial. Second, this concentration has helped career and technical programs escape the characterization that they are offered primarily to keep low-achieving students in school. Finally, career and technical education classes often more closely gauge emerging workforce skill needs than academic programs and provide students who are wondering about their "next step" after high school the opportunity to consider a path other than a four-year college.

The bill was recommended to pass on a voice vote and will be heading for the House floor. Kudos to Jerry Schoenfeld, who has lobbied for career and technical courses for decades (and is a former Agricultural educator to boot) for continuing to promote career and technical education as a valid option for students throughout Minnesota. Studies continue to show that in order to be successful in the new economy, students will need to graduate from high school and receive a degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma. Career and technical education programs help students win on both these counts, as they can spark the interest of many students and, as a result, keep them in school and further help students find a career interest and make meaningful strides toward training in that career at an early age.

The committee then turned its attention to HF 2658, which would help create settings that would promote individualized education. Testimony on the bill was provided by longtime education reform advocate Ted Kolderie and students from the Avalon charter school. Avalon has done quite a bit with project-based education, which by its very nature is individualized. I found the testimony from the student quite compelling, as she described how she has used projects and internships to prepare herself for her next step, which in her case will be college.

I couldn't help but mutter "Holy Profiles of Learning, Batman," as I listened to the testimony. I'm kidding of course, as while there were elements of individualized learning in the Profiles of Learning, the Profiles became a project that lost its focus, became increasingly rule-driven and eventually collapsed of its own weight. The effort toward individualized learning contained in HF 2658 is much more straightforward and certainly meets the students where they are in a variety of ways.

It will be interesting to see how the bill forward from this point. The Senate companion, HF 2201 (Olson-R-Minnestrista), is currently in the Senate Finance Committee. It could become part of an omnibus bill or may move separately and it will be interesting to see what transpires.

The House Education Finance Committee handled three bills. The first, HF 2640 (Dettmer-R-Forest Lake), would remedy the pay differential that occurs when a teacher who serves in the National Guard goes on active duty and requires a substitute during the school year. This bill is not moving in the Senate, so it will be interesting to see if Representative Dettmer can find a home for it by the end of the session.

The committee then turned to HF 2890 (Quam-R-Byron), a bill that would create a pilot project in the Byron school district to create more comprehensive immersion of technology in the school system. Dr. Wendy Shannon, Byron Superintendent, and Jen Hegna, Director of Information and Learning Technologies, testified in favor of the bill and did a wonderful job showing how Byron has effectively used technology in raising student achievement. The major stumbling block for the bill is its $120,000 price tag. While $120,000 wouldn't be an overwhelming obstacle during a budget year, it becomes one in a legislative session when many legislators believe spending an additional nickel is too much.

The final bill addressed in House Education Finance was HF 2714 (Woodard-R-Belle Plaine), another bill currently without a Senate companion. The gist of the bill is to clean up some charter school language and, in the words of the bill's title, "foster charter school accountability and success." The most controversial provision of the bill is the one that would allow charter schools to "fast track" teachers licensed in other states to teach in Minnesota. This provision caused a bit of a rift between the charter school directors who testified in favor of the bill and the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, which expressed concern over how the hiring of staff not holding a valid Minnesota teaching license would both be perceived and what it would mean to student achievement.

The day ended in the Senate Education Committee. The first portion of the hearing was dedicated to a presentation on collective bargaining from the Minnesota School Boards Association. MSBA staff members Gary Lee and Amy Fullenkamp-Taylor did a great job outlining the process and describing the various salary grids that local school districts have developed. Jan Alswager and Lee Johansen offered additional comments from Education Minnesota's perspective. All in all, it was an informative session, especially for those legislators who had little familiarity with the negotiating process.

Attention then turned to HF 2083, the bill passed by the House last week that would accelerate the re-payment of the education aids payment shift with money from the state budget reserve. The bill that passed the House had a number of policy provisions, most notably the repeal of "last in/first out" as layoff policy for school districts. Senate chief author Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) stripped all of the House policy provisions out of the bill, making the bill almost exclusively devoted to bringing the aid payment shift to 70%/30%. Senator Olson's amendment to the House bill did contain language that would prevent the extension of a continuing contract without a settlement.

The DFLers offered an amendment that would have increased taxes by making some changes to the corporate tax base and closing some perceived loopholes in Minnesota's corporate tax framework. I'll have to admit that things got a bit heated as the two opposing schools of tax policy had at it as the amendment was discussed. In the end, the amendment was defeated on a vote of 5-11. The bill was then recommended to pass and sent to the Senate Finance Committee.

Interesting Rumor Making the Rounds Today. A very interesting rumor contending that the Legislature may aim for adjournment prior to Easter whipped through the hallowed halls of the Capitol today. My impression? Fine by me if true. There are some smaller bills that it would be "nice" to pass, but there's nothing earth-shattering that should hold the Legislature in St. Paul.

It's like this. Legislative re-districting complete? Check. Budget forecast in at an amount that doesn't require further budget cuts? Check. That leaves the bonding bill, which remains unfinished business. Other than that, there are a few pieces of legislation (the extension of the use of prone restraint in the education arena) that are on their way to passage (and would likely be signed) and there's plenty of time to get that done by the first week of April.

Stay tuned.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fast-Paced Monday. While it wasn't exactly action galore, there was quite a bit going on in the education world at the Capitol today. As I reported yesterday, the conference committee on HF 1870--the proposed changes to "last in/first out" as the preponderant determinant of lay-off policy--began at noon. The conference committee heard from Sandi Jacobs, the Vice-President of the National Council on Teacher Quality, regarding the need for student achievement to be the primary factor on which layoff policy should be based.

Jacobs gave an interesting and thought-provoking presentation, but one of the problems with the presentation is that it took the conference committee into areas not covered by the bill. At one point, a conferee suggested that seniority be tossed out completely in determining layoff policy, which clearly isn't policy contained in HF 1870.

One thing that does get garbled in this discussion is the difference between experience and seniority. When one takes a step back, the difference is clear, but it is important to point that out during the debate. Experience is how long a teacher has been teaching. Seniority is where a teacher sits on the "grid" of teachers in a district. When teachers move from district-to-district, the certainly retain their experience, but not necessarily their seniority. As we move forward on the discussion of HF 1870, seniority, and the role it plays in district layoff policies, will be a subject of much interest.

On the House floor, HF 2424, the bill authored by Representative Tim O'Driscoll (R-Sartell) that would change management of the school trust lands passed by a vote of 104-26. Frankly, I was a bit surprised by the vote.

Most of the votes against the bill emanated from two related reasons: (1) concern that overweening pursuit of increased revenue from school trust lands will lead to environmental degradation and costs to future generations of Minnesotans, and (2) belief that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is in the best position to manage the lands to protect the environment and responsibly market the trust lands.

The problem with that mentality is that the DNR has not served as an impartial manager in many instances. Representative O'Driscoll and Representative Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin) pointed out several examples where this hasn't been the case.

From the cheap seats, my frustration lies with the fact that the DNR is funding some positions and operations out of the school trust land proceeds. It is this lack of transparency that is troubling and maddening. Gleaning greater earnings from the school trust lands is important and the further importance of doing that in an environmentally responsible way goes without saying. But that doesn't excuse the lack of transparency that has been at play in the management of the trust lands. Whatever the fate of this particular piece of legislation (the Governor has yet to weigh in on the issue), the least that should happen is that the system should work with greater clarity and purposefulness.

The Senate Education Committee had a quick hearing in which it heard five bills, most of them dealing with fund transfers.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Other Bills of Interest. So much was covered during deadline week, that I know I will overlook something of interest to someone, but there were a couple of other bills that do merit discussion. Here is a brief synopsis of these bills:

SF 2059 (Nelson-R-Rochester)/HF 2506 (Loon-R-Eden Prairie): This bill would eliminate the staff development allocation formula of 50% to sites/25% to the district/25% to exemplary programs that accompanies the 2% staff development set-aside. SEE has long advocated for the repeal of this portion of the staff development law as what happens with the revenue automatically designated for the sites may not coincide with district-wide (and by extension statewide) staff development goals. The bill was recommended to pass and was sent to the respective floors of the Senate and House.

SF 1185 (Torres Ray-DFL-Minneapolis)/HF 1460 (Slocum-DFL-Minneapolis): This is a bill that was introduced last session and seeks to create a new "hybrid" of charter schools by changing the relationship between the school district in which the charter school is located and the charter school. It is somewhat in the same ballpark as the Forest Lake/Lila Academy bill of last session (SF 452/HF 672) in which those two entities tried to work together more closely. It's hard to see the downside of the legislation, as both the district and the affected charter schools would seem to benefit from the synergy, but some elements of the charter school movement view the effort dimly.

HF 2310 (Erickson-R-Princeton)/No Senate Companion: This bill repeals a number of statutory citations that are no longer relevant given the fact that the language or program has been repealed. Notable among the repealed citations is that of the Profiles of Learning.

SF 2107 (Bonoff-DFL-Minnetonka)/HF 2729 (Loon-R-Eden Prairie): This bill would allocate $250,000 of the current appropriation for early learning scholarships to a parent-child home
program. It sounds like a solid program, but what I found most interesting is that it's the first time I've ever heard an early childhood program endorsed by the conservative-leaning Education Liberty Watch run by Dr. Karen Effrem. The only difference between the House and Senate versions is the language found in the Senate version at the end of Section 1 that speaks to the need for eligible programs to be evidence- and research-based.

SF 2460 (Harrington-DFL-St. Paul)/HF 2801 (Woodard-R-Belle Plaine): The House heard this bill and it doesn't appear to be going anywhere, but it's an interesting bill that would make charter school where at least 60% of the schools' students are eligible to participate in the graduation incentives program an area learning center for purposes of measuring student achievement and graduation rates.

HF 2083 Passes House Floor. The House passed its first version of the omnibus education funding bill last Thursday on a vote of 74-59. Three DFLers joined the Republican majority in passing the bill. One Republican voted against it. The bill has yet to be heard in the Senate, but with two weeks left until the Finance Committee deadline (March 30), I imagine it will be heard soon (perhaps as early as this week). While there are multiple provisions in the bill, the centerpiece is the accelerated buy-back of the school aids payment shift to 70%/30% (up from approximately 64%/36% after the February budget forecast) at the expense of the budget reserve.

Take Me in Your LIFO Boat. I couldn't resist employing a play on words with the old Bluegrass classic (Take Me in Your Lifeboat) as the conference committee on HF 1870/SF 1690 begins its deliberations tomorrow (Monday, March 19) morning. There is only one substantive difference between the two bills and that relates to the status of probationary teachers and that shouldn't be that difficult to resolve.

What may be confusing to those watching at home (and some watching at the Capitol) is why did it take so long to get the bill into conference committee. The bill passed the Senate floor on February 27 and with such a minor difference preventing the bill being sent on to the Governor, I'm not seeing why the conference committee wasn't convened earlier.

It's also important to note that the House language from this bill is included in HF 2083, the aforementioned House omnibus education funding bill and I expect that bill to hit the Governor's desk within the month as well. The Legislature is breaking for the spring religious holidays from April 6 until April 13 and is slated to adjourn no later than April 30 and I would guess (note the word "guess") that the omnibus education funding bill will hit the Governor's desk in the time window between the return from the recess and adjournment.

No one seems to know what the Governor will do once the LIFO bill hits his desk. A op-ed piece written by Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius for last week's Minneapolis StarTribune seemed to inkle that the legislation was headed for a veto, but there is a groundswell of support for the bill and that might sway the Governor's opinion.

At any rate, the fun starts tomorrow morning at high noon in Room 118 of the State Capitol. The conferees are as follows:


Branden Peterson (R-Andover)
Keith Downey (R-Edina)
Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton)
Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine)
Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul)


PamWolf (R-Spring Lake Park)
Ted Daley (R-Eagan)
Benjamin Kruse (R-Brooklyn Park
Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista)
Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka)

If you have comments regarding the bill, I would urge you to contact these members as early in the negotiating process as possible. I'll be there from the get-go and will try to provide insight as to how things are going.

Wrangling about Rules. It hasn't been an issue that has been center stage during the 2012 Legislative Session, but the tension that exists between the Legislative and Executive branches over the appropriate role each assumes in the making of policy has been prevalent and is showing up in several pieces of proposed legislation.

This has been a longstanding issue that has existed between branches of government dating back to the early days of the Republic and tension over it has exacerbated over the past decade given unpopular decisions at the national level as they relate to foreign policy and health care and at the state level with recent executive branch decisions relating to the rating of childcare systems. There are other examples with bipartisan perpetration, but those are the most visible ones that pop into my head.

The debate has found its way into the Education Committees of the House and Senate with hearings on SF 2183 (Thompson-R-Lakeville)/HF 2596 (Doepke-R-Orono). These bills seek to put an end to what is considered by some to be unwarranted action taken by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) in the application of state and federal policy. There are instances when MDE has issued a memorandum as a result of a complaint (usually in the area of special education) or pronounced an interpretation of state or federal law (across a wider range of issues) and these actions have the force of law. It is different when MDE has to undergo rule-making in conjunction with legislation, as that is directed by an initial legislative action.

What bothers legislators (of both parties I might add) is that when MDE issues a ruling in other forms, it can be done without legislative input or the seeking of legislative intent. In other words, it's the making of law by people without election certificates. One can argue that all members of the Administrative branch of government "share" in the Governor's election certificate, but that is a bit of a stretch when it comes to this process. There is a big difference between the execution of laws (the "how) and the laws themselves (the "what").

From my vantage point, one of the primary reasons for tension this year between the Legislature and the Governor on education policy stems from the successful waiver request made by MDE to the Federal Government to get out from under many of the more punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind. Some legislators view this as a clear end-run by the Governor's office around a number of accountability measures that provide necessary information relating to school performance. There have been several bills discussed by which the Legislature would mold the program submitted to and accepted by the United States' Department of Education, but good luck getting the Governor to sign any of them.

I testified as part of spirited hearings in both the House and Senate on SF 2183/HF 2596. I believe there are appropriate times for MDE to interpret legislation, but the problem is there has been very little consultation with the Legislature when these interpretations are made and some of the decisions, most notably the decision to declare the use of prone restraint as illegal, were both an inappropriate exercise of agency power in the making of law and a gross misreading of the statute in question. Greater transparency should be the goal of the law-making process and while both the Executive and Legislative branches have important roles to play in how policy is developed, both branches also have appropriate roles that they need to assume and not go beyond. I know I'm sounding like a junior high school civics teacher (they still teach civics don't they?), but I truly believe one of the frustrations with the voting public is that the development of the current network of laws, rules, and regulations is extremely difficult to follow.

I've provided a couple of links on this issue:

Story from House of Representatives' March 9, 2012, edition of Session Weekly discussing legislative desire to curb Executive Branch rulemaking (story starts on page 3):
Ker-blooey! That's the sound of schools with which parents are dissatisfied being blown up if HF 2580 (Loon-R-Eden Prairie) were to pass. The bill would empower parents to request a school district intervention in a persistently low-performing school. In order to request an intervention, parents who represent 51 percent of the students would have to file a petition with the school board of the district (or governing board of a charter school). Upon receipt of the petition, the school would be required to employ one of the four "turnaround" interventions outlined in federal law for persistently underperforming schools.

There are four turnaround models, including one which closes the school entirely, and each one calls for a radical re-configuring of the school environment, starting with the dismissal of the principal. The primary difference between this and current federal turnaround guidelines is that the process is started by parents. While parental choice and involvement is welcome in the educational process, one wonders if this pushes the envelope a bit too far and compromises the intention of the federally-determined turnaround process.

The group promoting HF 2580 is a newly-minted education organization called Students First, which is led nationally by former Washington, D.C., school district chancellor. Students First joins the plethora of new education "reform" groups that has sprung over the past couple of years. The common theme of these groups seems to be that the education system in the United States is rotting from the inside out and that radical change, including the discarding of teacher seniority and promotion of charter schools (and other alternative learning environments), is needed.

It is difficult to know what the fate of HF 2580 will be in the coming weeks. Although it met the policy bill deadline and is now sitting in the Education Finance Committee, there is no Senate companion to HF 2580, meaning that this proposal would have to be part of an omnibus funding bill if it were to hit the Governor's desk. The other option would be for the bill to get a quick introduction in the Senate and be heard by Friday, March 23. When a bill is "moving" in one body (meaning it has passed its policy committee deadline), the deadline for hearing that bill in the other body is extended by one week. We'll know more on Friday.
Ker-blooey! That's the sound of schools with which parents are dissatisfied being blown up if HF 2580 (Loon-R-Eden Prairie) were to pass. The bill would empower parents to request a school district intervention in a persistently low-performing school. In order to request an intervention, parents who represent 51 percent of the students would have to file a petition with the school board of the district (or governing board of a charter school). Upon receipt of the petition, the school would be required to employ one of the four "turnaround" interventions outlined in federal law for persistently underperforming schools.

There are four turnaround models, including one which closes the school entirely, and each one calls for a radical re-configuring of the school environment, starting with the dismissal of the principal. The primary difference between this and current federal turnaround guidelines is that the process is started by parents. While parental choice and involvement is welcome in the educational process, one wonders if this pushes the envelope a bit too far and compromises the intention of the federally-determined turnaround process.

The group promoting HF 2580 is a newly-minted education organization called Students First, which is led nationally by former Washington, D.C., school district chancellor. Students First joins the plethora of new education "reform" groups that has sprung over the past couple of years. The common theme of these groups seems to be that the education system in the United States is rotting from the inside out and that radical change, including the discarding of teacher seniority and promotion of charter schools (and other alternative learning environments), is needed.

It is difficult to know what the fate of HF 2580 will be in the coming weeks. Although it met the policy bill deadline and is now sitting in the Education Finance Committee, there is no Senate companion to HF 2580, meaning that this proposal would have to be part of an omnibus funding bill if it were to hit the Governor's desk. The other option would be for the bill to get a quick introduction in the Senate and be heard by Friday, March 23. When a bill is "moving" in one body (meaning it has passed its policy committee deadline), the deadline for hearing that bill in the other body is extended by one week. We'll know more on Friday.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

First Deadline Passed. There's the old saying about trying to put "20 pounds of potatoes into a 10 pound sack" and that's the way it felt as the first committee deadline came upon the Legislature on Friday. A lot of bills were heard and many simply won't survive, but that doesn't stop the committees from hearing as many bills as possible. There were a number of interesting hearings and I'll highlight some of the more interesting bills that were heard this past week.

For SEE members, the bill that generated the most interest is HF 2540 (Barrett-R-Shaffer), a funding proposal that would provide increased revenue for districts at the lowest end of the general education spectrum. Under the bill, districts that are below 87% of the statewide general education revenue average would have their revenue adjusted upward to that level. Granted, this proposal would only affect about 40 school districts (and a number of charter schools), but a number of those districts are SEE districts.

I testified in favor of the bill along with North Branch superintendent Deb Henton. Like most of the districts that would qualify for revenue under HF 2540, North Branch does not generate much revenue from the set of categorical formulas that deliver revenue to school districts throughout the state and, further, North Branch does not have a referendum. HF 2540 zeroes in on those districts to supply them with additional revenue.

Obviously, the bill doesn't provide the wide-ranging assistance that would completely remedy the funding challenges facing all low-funded districts, but Representative Barrett attempted to find a percentage at which considerable assistance could be targeted to needy districts without totally breaking the state bank. HF 2540, with the adjustment up to 87% of the statewide average general education revenue amount, would cost about $30 million.

The discussion during the hearing was interesting, most of it revolving around where Representative Barrett would get the money to fund his proposal. Any bill that costs money will be facing an extremely steep uphill battle during the 2012 and HF 2540 is no exception. That doesn't make discussing HF 2540 a waste of time. A lot of time (and considerable revenue) has been dedicated to a broad range of funding needs over the past few years, but very little of this time has been spent concentrating on low-funded districts.

SEE, and other education groups, devoted a lot of effort to broad-ranging funding reform with PS Minnesota and "The New Minnesota Miracle," but given the dire straits on the state budget situation over the past few years, that effort did not meet with success. Addressing the issues facing low-revenue districts was clearly part of that effort and that angle cannot be ignored in any comprehensive funding reform package. HF 2540, whatever its fate in 2012, will help keep the plight of low revenue districts on the legislative radar screen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

One Step Closer. It's not just the title of a Doobie Brothers album. It's also the update on HF 2083 and HF 2244. Both bills were heard in the House Ways and Means Committee (also known as the Ways to be Mean Committee) this evening and were recommended to pass and sent to the House floor.

HF 2083 is, for lack of a better term, the House Omnibus Education Funding Bill, Part Un. The centerpiece of the bill is the provision that would deplete the budget reserve by about $400 million to set the education aids payment schedule at 70%/30%. There are several other provisions in the bill, most notably the repeal of "last in/first out," but the heart of the bill lies in the decision to flip-flop the school aids payment schedule and the budget reserve. I've written enough about this over the past couple of days, so I won't go on any further other than to say the hearing of the bill tonight was much more reserved (and considerably shorter) than the proceedings in last night's House Tax Committee meeting.

HF 2244 is the bill that would create a new Legislative-Citizen panel to manage the School Trust Lands and hopefully be more aggressive (while ensuring responsible treatment of the environment) in earning revenue from mineral and lumber leases on School Trust Land property. The environmental community is not exactly enamored with this bill, as (and I am mentally paraphrasing here) they believe much of the school trust land lies in extremely fragile areas and cannot be mined or forested without running a very high risk of environmental degradation. Those concerns did not derail the bill and it is also on its way to the House floor.

Kudos are in order for Representatives Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin) and Tim O'Driscoll for their hard work on this bill. While Representative O'Driscoll is the chief author this session, Representative Denise Dittrich laid the groundwork for this legislation with some heavy lifting over the past three or four years. MSBA, especially chief lobbyist Grace Keliher, also deserves a lot of credit for laying the groundwork on the bill and doing a thorough job of studying how the system works in other states and how Minnesota's system can be improved.

Ravitch on a Roll. Her critics would say "Ravitch on a rant," but however one views it, education writer and historian Diane Ravitch has been cranking out article after article critiquing a number of the latest education reforms, especially those that grade teacher performance on student test scores. At one point in her career, Ravitch was viewed as an enemy of the "education cartel" and someone who embraced school choice. Whether that depiction was accurate, her standard argument now is that we should look outside the school to make certain children (and their parents) are getting the social supports that they need and let well-prepared teachers teach.

Ravitch has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books over the past year and I've included these three links to some of her recent work. Although I subscribe to NYRB, I'm glad they link these articles for free. The first two links are from a two-part article (appearing in the March 8, 2012, and March 22, 2012 issues) that review a book on the Finnish education system (she likes) and a book on Teach for America (she doesn't like). The third link is a blog entry from the NYRB blog in which she "grades" Arne Duncan.

In a related note, Dr. Ravitch will be the keynote speaker at the Education Minnesota fall convention. I'm hoping that the good folks at EM make her appearance one the entire education community can attend. Agree with her or not, Ravitch is a tremendous writer with some very keen insights about the history of American education and the challenges we, as a nation, face as we move forward into the future.

Remembering Van Mueller. I wanted to note the recent passing of all-time Friend of Equity Van Mueller, who died from an on-going battle with lung cancer last week. For those of you
who didn't know Van, let's just say he was a insightful analyst, wonderful professor, and tireless advocate of education funding equity. He touched many lives and my guess is he supplied over half of the educational leadership that studied at the University of Minnesota with their school finance acumen. I don't know if Van was even allowed to drive through the Western Hennepin County suburbs during the Skeen lawsuit, as he certainly was a burr under the saddle of the districts in that neck of the woods.

We at SEE never got around to giving Van the Friend of Equity award that he so richly reserved and that is to our great fault. Recognizing our shortcoming, we should now pledge to never forget the lessons he taught us, the energy (and sense of humor) he brought to the fight, and his devotion to children and educators. Remembering him in that vein and working toward the goals he so adamantly espoused is probably the best award we can give him.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Senate Education Meeting. The Senate Education Committee met Monday afternoon and finished up three bills. Two of the bills--SF 2213 (Nelson-R-Rochester) and SF 1889 (Kruse-R-Brooklyn Park)--took up most of the time. The other bill was SF 1932 (Bonoff-DFL-Minnetonka), a bill that would allow substitute principals to serve up to 15 consecutive days without requiring them to be up-to-date on continuing education credits, and it was finished in short order.

SF 2213 is the bill that would put student performance data measurement into the principals evaluation legislation passed last session. The component of the assessment comprised by this data is at the same level--35%--as that of the student performance portion of the teacher evaluation program.

There are obvious issues with this approach. The "student performance posse," who believe that student performance data should be at the heart of all evaluations, is in full support of this legislation and believes that principals can be fairly judged on how students are doing academically. While it can be argued that principals do have a fair amount of power in the organization and delivery of academic services, proponents of this legislation seem to believe that is all they do.

A number of principals testified in opposition to the bill and one of the primary points in their argument is that principals have a wide range of responsibilities, a large portion of which is creating a supportive environment in which any learning can take place. As was pointed out in testimony, sometimes decisions to create a healthy environment can limit test score growth in the short-run, but will bear long-term benefits. Principals who become too "test-score centric" in their thinking may be tempted to forego making sound decisions that will best serve students in the long run.

One of the ironies in all of this is that the principals' organizations--MESPA and MAASP--came forward last session with legislation that promoted the evaluation of their members. There was no test-score data in that legislation and it's odd now to see this element saddled onto the evaluation.

SF 1889 is the bill that would reorganize the management of the School Trust Lands and place jurisdiction of these lands under a Legislative-Citizen Commission. This bill is the result of much work undertaken by MSBA and Representative Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin) and is the Senate companion to HF 2244 (O'Driscoll-R-Sartell). The bill was recommended to pass and sent to the Environment Committee for further consideration, but only after about forty-five minutes of conversation and the adoption of an amendment that would add two legislators to the commission that would oversee the trust lands.

Night Moves. The education day ended with a night hearing in the House Tax Committee of HF 2083 (Garofalo-R-Farmington), the recently introduced House bill that I described yesterday. Under HF 2083, the state budget reserve would be bought down by over $400 million with that revenue being used to buy the education aid payment shift back to the 70%/30% level. As in the Education Finance Committee, Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter expressed grave concerns about the bill, contending that it may jeopardize the budget stability the state seems to be enjoying right now as the result of two consecutive positive budget forecasts.

DFLers offered a number of amendments, all of which failed. The amendments not only dealt with the aid payment shift, but included various tax increases (some of which are contained in the Governor's jobs bill). The DFLers proposed that the proceeds from these tax increases would go to a number of purposes, including buying back the shift further or putting more money on the general education formula. One amendment, offered by Representative Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth), would have increased the referendum equalization factor to $710,000/PU, an almost 50% increase in the current referendum equalizing factor of $476,000.

Although the amendment failed, it was good to see it offered. One message I have given to legislators this session is that instead of re-inventing the Market Value Homestead Credit that was eliminated last session, they should buy down education levies instead. The best place to start with this project is the referendum equalizing factor, which hasn't been upgraded since 1993. So even though it was unsuccessful, the brief discussion that surrounded the amendment did highlight an issue that needs to be remedied.

Here's a little diddy from today's StarTribune in the letters-to-the-editor section. Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson contends that acceleration of the payback of the shift shouldn't take place and that the money should instead be given to school districts in the form of increased aid.

Teacher Evaluation Discussion Continues. HF 1870 will be heading to conference committee to iron out the difference between the versions of the bill (a provision relating to probationary teachers) and I would expect that to hit the Governor's desk within a week or two. No one seems to know what the Governor will do when the bill hits his desk, although inklings are that it may meet with a veto. There are ample reasons on both political and policy grounds for vetoing the bill, although a veto would signify somewhat of a political risk given the public's seemingly overwhelming support for getting rid of "bad teachers."

Even if HF 1870 were to meet a veto, the discussion will continue, as witnessed in the House Education Finance Committee last week when testimony on the bill was taken once again. There were some new faces at the witness table, one of them being Minneapolis parent Lynnell Mickelson. Mickelson's testimony was one of the more entertaining pieces of witness table work I have watched in my many years of wearing out hearing room chairs. Energetic and funny (I am tempted to use the term "delightfully daffy, yet profound"), alternatively seemingly off subject or straight to the heart of the matter, Mickelson hit a number of key issues and challenged legislators (especially DFLers as she reminded the committee at a number of junctures that she is a die-hard DFLer) to pass the legislation Whether or not that has an effect remains to be seen, but it again shows that the teacher evaluation issue is not monolithic in its support. The basics of Mickelson's testimony can be found (sans sizzling delivery) in this piece from the Minneapolis StarTribune:

The hearing in House Education Finance showed that the House is committed to continuing to push this bill and will find ways to get it on the Governor's desk as often as they can in one form or another during the 2012 Legislative Session.

The problem with teacher evaluation systems is that even with comprehensive student performance data and other evaluation tools, the whole story will not be told for a number of teachers. This was perhaps summed up best in an opinion piece from The New York Times written by Brooklyn, New York, special education teacher William Johnson.

As I stated above, I don't know what the Governor will do if and when the teacher evaluation legislation hits his desk, but Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius' opinion piece in this Sunday's Minneapolis StarTribune does point out the rationale I mentioned earlier that could justify a gubernatorial veto. The task force that is developing the teacher evaluation framework is in the middle of its work. While there is nothing against the Legislature passing bills that would narrow the playing field for the task force, allowing the task force to continue unimpeded is also a justifiable position. The Commissioner's other point--that teachers have largely been left out of the discussion--also rings true to an extent.

To me, the problem remains that teaching is an art as much as a science and it will always be difficult--though some contend it can be done--to develop a statistical model that will conclusively show who is and who isn't a good teacher based on student performance data. While other elements were added to the teacher evaluation model passed as part of the legislation contained in last year's omnibus education bill, I still get the feeling that those who desperately want teacher evaluation want it to be based almost solely on student performance on standardized tests.

The other angle in this is how the teacher evaluation piece will tie into teacher layoff positions. Getting rid of "last in, first out" as a blanket policy may be a laudable goal, but both proponents and defenders of the policy seem to have reduced the discussion to its bare bones shorn of any nuance and if there is a profession in which nuance reigns, it is in teaching.

Anyway, as Colin Quinn used to say when doing the news on Saturday Night Live, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

House Omnibus Bill? Yes, it's a question mark. The House Education Finance Committee heard HF 2083 last Thursday and slapped a huge amendment on it, giving it the marking of what looks to be an omnibus bill. It's not overly long and it doesn't contain a myriad of provisions, but it does contain a centerpiece and some considerably important supporting provisions.

At the heart of the bill is the decision to bring the aid payment shift back to 70%/30% from the 60%/40% aid payment schedule that was part of the agreement reached last July to bring the stalemate between the Governor and the Legislature to an end. Given the uptick in the last two state budget forecasts, the shift is scheduled to be readjusted to 64%/36% if no legislative action is taken this session, as the budget reserve and the cash flow account are now at their statutorily-required levels and the remaining "excess" in the projection would go toward buying back the shift.

The House bill goes one better, taking over $400 million from the budget reserve and using it to put the aid payment schedule at 70%/30%. This would obviously be better for schools, at least in the short run, as the need to employ short-term borrowing would be alleviated, albeit only slightly. The rub is that once the aid payment schedule is set, the state would find itself in a tighter cash position and may need to short-term borrow. Given how the economy has been performing as of late and that is not likely, but the borrowing shoe would be on the state's foot instead of school districts.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter appeared before the House Education Finance Committee and expressed his concern that the House approach could jeopardize the state's financial position and that makes this a dicey scheme. I don't disagree with the Commissioner's "macro" argument, but why should local units of government constantly serve as the credit card for the state. Don't get me wrong, it's hard to complain about aid payment shifts when the alternative is a cut in the funding base and a real loss in dollars, but school districts have been jerked around quite a bit over the past couple of decades and the state doesn't seem to readily recognize that.

The whole debate brought me back to when the budget reserve was first created back in the early-1980s during the string of special sessions that tried to remedy on-going budget issues that plagued the state. While the consensus was established early that a budget reserve was necessary, there were some who viewed the maintenance of a fund outside "active" budget as showing a lack of fiscal discipline and a form of confiscatory taxation. Their argument was that if the budget were cut to a level that would accommodate an economic downturn, there would be no need for a budget reserve. Of course, a lot of those folks wanted to stem the intake of revenue by dramatically cutting taxes, which has as much to do with putting a budget into balance as the level of spending. But the question remains, should over half a billion dollars be held in abeyance in the event of an economic downturn or other tax collection/spending outflow issues that put the budget at risk.

Whether or not the aid payment schedule changes, this is another angle from which to gaze upon the budget process. The budget reserve, cash flow account, and education aid payment schedule are all budget reserves of a sort. The amounts or (in the case of the aid payment schedule) percentages are set as part of the budget discussions and then things go on auto-pilot until either the next session or budget cycle. Through this proposal, the House is suggesting that positive action be taken to change the "mix" of the various budget reserves. While this may not put the state into fiscal quicksand, it (as I stated earlier) would change the dynamic between school districts and the state in terms of who may be on more solid footing.

Part of this is political posturing, but that doesn't encapsulate the entire argument. There is a deeper issue at play in this discussion and I hope the fact that the Legislature and the Administration are of different political stripes doesn't dull that conversation. It is a topic worth discussing.
Deadline Week Is Upon Us. Television has its Sweeps Week, where all the best plot lines get played out in episodes across the dial in search of the highest ratings and the Legislature has Deadline Week, where all bills must be breathing at the end of the week if they are to have a chance to become law during the session. The first deadline is this coming Friday (March 16) and committees will be working overtime to hear as many bills as possible. The deadline applies almost exclusively to policy bills and not finance bills. The third deadline--Friday, March 30--is the date on which all finance bills need to be out of their respective committees.

Deadline week has always been hectic, but it is even moreso in the modern legislature, where almost all bills for which the author has requested a hearing receive one. Back in the day (just call me "Old School"), committee chairs exercised much more discretion over which bills should be heard. Now, if an author wants a hearing, regardless of how odd the concept may appear or how improbable the chances of a bill happening given budget constraints, the bill usually gets a hearing, especially if the author is from the majority party.

One thing to watch this week is whether or not bills passed by a policy committee are sent directly to the floor or re-referred to the corresponding finance committee. If a bill goes to the corresponding finance committee (i.e. from Education Reform to Education Finance in the House), it may be a signal that it is going to be part of the omnibus bill. More on that later.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Week Winds Down. It was a quiet end to the weekend in terms of education-related hearings at the State Capitol. The only meeting held today was that of the House Education Reform Committee, which dealt with two bills: HF 2127 (Myhra-R-Burnsville) and HF 1510 (Erickson-R-Princeton).

HF 2127 makes several changes to on-line learning policy in Minnesota. At the top of the list of changes is the requirement that all students take at least one on-line course in order to graduate. The bill also requires teacher preparation colleges to prepare teaching candidates to use technology effectively in their classrooms, includes effective use of curriculum as an approved staff development activity, and requires the Minnesota Department of Education to approve or disapprove a technology provider that has applied to provide on-line course material to students. Today was the third hearing that the bill has received and the bugs have been pretty thoroughly scrubbed out.

HF 1510 would allow principals to participate in the alternative compensation program. While the bill isn't controversial, it hasn't met with universal approval at this point and I imagine there will have to be some changes if it is to become law.