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.

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