Thursday, January 30, 2014

Can't Believe What Superintendents Have Been Going Through.  This little entry will probably be filed in the Obvious Observation drawer, but I simply cannot believe the challenges school administrators have been faced with this January (and not only in Minnesota).  From cold to snow to cold to snow to cold again.  My heart goes out to everyone involved in the process of a school closing.  A lot of tough calls so far in 2014.

Progress Being Made on Doughnut Hole Issue.   I have written about the "Doughnut Hole" before--the quirk from the 2013 omnibus tax bill that leaves districts with enrollments between 960 and 2,000 with neither small schools revenue nor location equity revenue--and progress is being made in developing a possible solution to the problem.  The proposal would make all districts in the state eligible for location equity revenue.  Districts that already receive small schools revenue would have the option of receiving either--but not both--of the formulas.  There is a break point where a district that receives small schools revenue would be better off taking the location equity revenue, but it has to be remembered that location equity revenue ($212 per pupil unit for non-metropolitan districts) has to be subtracted from a district's referendum revenue per pupil.  In other words, if a district has in excess of $512 per pupil in referendum revenue, there will be no new revenue generated directly by the adoption of location equity revenue (there would be a minor increase in equity revenue because a reduction in referendum revenue caused by the adoption of location equity revenue would increase the amount of revenue a district would receive in the "sliding scale" portion of the equity revenue formula).

A bill is being drafted that would accomplish this.  It will likely be introduced the first day of the 2014 legislative session (February 25).  The cost of the bill is just under $7 million, with the bulk of the revenue coming greater equalization to prevent statewide property tax levies for schools to increase.  The first tier equalizing factor would go up to $909,000/PU to accomplish this.  This action would deliver property tax relief to all but a handful of school districts in Minnesota.

I will keep you posted on developments related to this issue.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Florida Lengthening School Day.  I've been critical of Florida's education reforms in several of my blog entries over the years, but one cannot argue with their success in several areas, especially on closing the achievement gap between white students and students from several categories of racial minorities.  Florida's latest reform will be lengthening the school day and devoting more time to reading instruction.  As most of you know, reading by third grade is a clear market when it comes to measuring chances for future academic success and it will be interesting to see if other states follow Florida's lead.

Here is an article from the January 22, 2014, issue of Education Week:

Great Column.  Here's another item from Education Week (January 8, 2014, issue).  It's a really great column by Georgetown professor Dr; Peter W. Cookson, Jr., that provides some very keen insight on educational equity issues.  There are a lot of angles to the equity issue and while Cookson doesn't hit them all, I think he does a good job of explaining why education is the key to America's future and why it is important that all students have access to a high quality education.


I urge everyone even remotely interested in education issues to sign up for the daily e-mail alert from Education Week.  You can view 10 articles a month without a subscription and with a subscription, you have unlimited viewing.  Education Week runs special subscription rates several times a year and a subscription is really worth it.

Thank You Belle Plaine.  It was fun getting out in this cold weather to visit the Belle Plaine school board last night.  It's always great to get out and visit with SEE school boards and if any members would like to have me out, just let me know.  Special kudos go out to Representative Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine) and Senator Kevin Dahle (DFL-Northfield) for providing their insight on what may lie ahead during the 2014 legislative session.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Latest "Quality Counts" Hits the Newsstands.  If you're like me, your favorite issue of Education Week is the annual Quality Counts issue.  This year's edition hit the newsstands a couple of weeks ago, but I've been unable to sit down and take a close look at how Minnesota stacks up nationally on the comparative national measures this year.

It's a mixed bag for Minnesota in the Education Week stats this year.  While ranking sixth nationally in the area of student achievement, Minnesota received a C+ grade.  While our overall percentage of students meeting proficiency in the NAEP tests rank among the highest in the nation, our achievement gap between poor students and their contemporaries rose over the past ten years, by 0.5% for 4th graders and 3.1% for 8th graders.  While not dramatically worse, a number of states are narrowing the gap and it is troubling that the variety of programs that have been implemented in an attempt to narrow the achievement gap don't appear to be producing the desired results.  I want to make it clear that I don't think these efforts should be abandoned because the gap would most assuredly be worse without these programs and the funding that supports them.  It will be interesting to see over the next few years whether the Literacy Aid program enacted in 2011 will help improve overall scores and reduce the achievement gap.  Minnesota's 80.4% graduation rate is slightly less than six percentage points above the national average of 74.7%.

Minnesota scores a C in the funding category.  Minnesota's regionally-adjusted per pupil revenue of $11,043 ranks 28th out of the 51 jurisdictions listed (50 states and Washington, D.C.)  Minnesota's amount is $821 below the national average.  What is really troubling is that according to the figures, only 33.8% of Minnesota's students reside in districts where spending is above the national average, which is a little more than 12% below the national average.  Equity measures are a mixed bag.  Minnesota sits almost right on the national average in terms of wealth-neutrality and the McLoone index (which measures the amount of current spending as a percentage of the total amount necessary to bring all districts below the median per pupil amount up to that amount).  Minnesota does do better than the national average in the amount of disparity across districts and the dollar gap between districts at the 5th and 95th percentiles.

Where Minnesota does quite well is in the area of the report labelled "Chance for Success," in which Minnesota scores higher than the national average in 11 of the 13 categories that comprise the category.  This category concentrates on the qualities which students "bring to school" in terms of income and the level of parents' education.  The two areas where Minnesota is below the national average--pre-school and kindergarten attendance--will likely improve given the actions of the 2013 Legislature to create early childhood scholarships and all-day kindergarten.

Here is the link to this year's Quality Counts:

Minnesota Report: (downloadable)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Another Day, Another Task Force.  MDE has been working overtime this legislative interim with a number of task forces and working groups.  As I reported last week, the School Facilities Financing Working Group has finished its work last week and its final report has been posted on the web.  A number of other are still at work and today saw the third meeting of the Integration Rule and Statute Alignment Working Group take place.

This working group is seeking to revise the current Integration Rule so that it aligns better with changes made to the Integration Revenue program over the past three legislative sessions.  As many of you recall, actions taken the legislature in 2011 pegged the entire program for elimination after the 2014-15 school year.  Actions taken during the 2013 legislative session rescued the revenue stream, but added an element of achievement to the concept of racially-balanced school environments upon which the program had traditionally been based.

While not at odds, melding the concepts of racially-balanced learning environments and achievement is not as straightforward a task as one would think.  The problem with focusing solely on racially-balanced learning environments is they can be difficult to create and maintain, especially with the opportunity of disgruntled parents to either opt out of a district's plan through open enrollment or by establishing a charter school.  We have seen this happen when districts make changes in attendance boundaries or enter into multi-district integration efforts.

At the same time, achievement should be at the heart of the education process and the integration program is one of four revenue streams--along with compensatory revenue, English language learner revenue, and literacy aid--that provide districts with resources to create programs intended to close the achievement gap, but integration   What makes integration and achievement revenue different is that it attempts to create learning environments that reflect the demographic balance in the wider community.  There is research that shows this can matter in closing the achievement gap and this perspective is voiced by a number of the working group participants.

There will be at least two more meetings of the working group.  Below is a link to the working group page at MDE.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

School Facilities Financing Report Now Downloadable.  The technology issues that prevented the successful downloading of the report of the School Facilities Financing Working Group have been remedied and the report can now be downloaded without incidence.  I urge you all to download the document and take a long look at it.  There's a ton of great stuff in it that would go a long way toward correcting some of the considerable equity problems in the area of school facilities that face most Minnesota school districts.

Again, here's the link:

The report is the first top link on the page.

Congratulations to Steve Razidlo.  Brainerd superintendent Dr. Steve Razidlo will be leaving the district at the end of the school year to head up the American International School in Vienna, Austria.  Dr. Razidlo has been an exemplary school leader in Minnesota and our loss--a considerable one--will certainly be a gain for the American International School.  Vienna is one of the world's most exciting cities and it is teeming with history.  Although I'm sure the work won't be easy, I can't think of many places where a challenge would be as enjoyable.

Good luck Steve!  We will miss you!


Monday, January 20, 2014

New Study on Value of Early Childhood Education.  Let me amend the headline and insert "Quality" in front of "Early Childhood Education."  An article in today's MinnPost cites a new study performed by economists Greg Duncan and Aaron Sojourner that contends that access to high-quality early childhood education programs for all children under age 3 would eliminate the achievement gap between white students and their minority counterparts.  Their evidence is quite compelling and shows how investment in quality early childhood programs more than pay for themselves over the long term.

Link to MinnPost article:

Link to "Can Intensive Early Childhood Intervention Programs Eliminate Income-Based Cognitive and Achievement Gaps?":

School Facilities Financing Report Posted.  At least there is a link to the report, but I am having trouble getting the link to work right now.  As I reported last week, the contents of this report could prove to be of great value to school districts throughout the state.  The recommendations contained in the report would provide access to increased revenue (considerably increased revenue) to most school districts throughout the state, especially to those districts that are not eligible for the Alternative Facilities Program under current law.

The thing to always remember is that there are two types of revenue limits:  (1) the statutorily-defined limit, and (2) the realistic limit.  The only reason I mention this is that although there will be significantly greater access to facility-related revenue in the report's recommendations, the ability of a number of school districts to fully exercise this access may not be as great.  That is why the increased equalization that is also contained in the report is so important.  Without increased equalization, the tax effort necessary to generate the increased revenue at the amounts suggested in the report would be considerably higher in low property wealth districts, making it highly unlikely that low property wealth districts would be able to enjoy the full benefit of the proposed increases.  Even with the equalization, the tax sensitivity in some districts may prevent them from enjoying the recommended increases.

District-by-district runs were distributed at the last meeting of the School Facilities Financing Working Group, but there is not a link to the runs on the MDE website.  I will try to find a way to get the reports posted at the SEE website.

MDE Link to Final Report:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Great Day at MSBA Leadership Convention.  It was great seeing so many SEE members at the MSBA Leadership Convention today.  It's always a well-planned and valuable convention and this year's edition was no exception.  A great keynote and a number of very valuable pull-out session, particularly Dr. Tom Melcher's annual highlighting of the past legislative session and the outlook going forward.  I was happy to see him describe the recently-completed School Facilities Financing Working Group report I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry.  That report provides a framework for a much-needed infusion of adequacy and equity in the funding of school facility needs.

The highlight of the day (at least for me) was speaking along with MREA lobbyist Sam Walseth to a room of superintendents and school board members from districts affected by what has come to be known as the doughnut hole" in school funding.  Roughly described, the "doughnut hole" affects districts that receive neither the small schools revenue that was enacted as part of the 2011 omnibus education funding bill and the location equity revenue given to all metropolitan-area districts and non-metropolitan districts with enrollments greater than 2,000 pupil units.  In other words, these are non-metropolitan school districts with more than 980 pupil units and less than 2,000 pupil units who receive no benefit from either of these changes. Approximately 120 districts comprise this strata, which by most measures is the lowest funded strata in Minnesota's funding system.

The cost of providing these districts with the Location Equity Revenue is approximately $4.0 million, with some districts garnering new revenue and others receiving property tax relief through greater equalization.  Expanding Location Equity Revenue to all districts below 2,000 pupil units (including those that receive small schools revenue is somewhere in the vicinity of $8.0 million with the bulk of the revenue being used to replace property taxes with state aid through greater equalization.

Even though the amount of revenue needed to correct this problem is relatively minor in the whole scheme of things, this won't be a slam dunk.  Given the Governor's and Legislature's assumed desire for a quick and concise legislative session, it may be a challenge to get on the radar and garner the support necessary to get this into the omnibus education funding bill (assuming there is one) and through the entire process and onto the Governor's desk.

It's great that SEE and MREA are working together on this issue.  MREA Executive Director Fred Nolan has also been working tirelessly on this issue and suggested that SEE and MREA co-host today's event.  When these two organizations work together, good things generally happen.  About 40% of SEE membership finds itself in the "doughnut hole" and while I don't have the exact percentage of MREA members in the same situation, I wouldn't be surprised if it were at a similar level.

Again, thanks to all the SEE and MREA members who participated today.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Superb Report.  I can't say it any more simply than that.  The final report approved by the School Facilities Working Group today would provide a long-needed boost for school districts throughout the state in meeting on-going facility needs.  If adopted, the recommendations would provide both greater adequacy and equity in funding as resources would be increased along with the equalization factors related to these programs.  This would certainly be welcome.

The recommendations are as follows:

  1. Establish a new long-term facilities maintenance program to replace the current alternative facilities, deferred maintenance, and health & safety programs.  This would provide a major revenue increase for districts currently not eligible for the alternative facilities program.
  2. Improve the debt service equalization program by increasing the portion of debt service that is eligible for equalization, restoring the state share of equalized revenue, and indexing future equalization.  This is a long-time SEE priority and it's great that this is included in the report.
  3. Equalize the capital projects referendum levy.  This levy is currently pretty much the domain of high property wealth districts.  Equalizing it would certainly bring greater fairness to the system.
  4. Establish a new school facilities improvement revenue program to replace the current building lease levy, providing all school districts with access to a uniform allowance for locally-defined student needs.  This would expand allowable uses for the lease levy and also equalize it.  It also provides assistance for intermediate districts, education districts, and cooperatives.
  5. Increase the operating capital revenue, index it for inflation, and increase the equalizing factor.  Not much to say here except "all good."
  6. Provide enhanced debt service equalization to address unique situations or needs.  This recommendation aims to help districts where a disaster has taken place and would also replace the consolidation grant program.
  7. Streamline the review and comment process.  This recommendation would increase the threshold below which review and comment would be required and would also eliminate the need for review and comment on projects funded with the newly-established long-term maintenance revenue, facilities improvement revenue, and operating capital revenue.
  8. Address the facilities needs of other educational entities (charters, cooperatives, intermediate districts, education districts).  Some of this is addressed with recommendation #4, but this recommendation also deals with charter schools.
All in all, this is an excellent report.  I have a copy of the slightly marked up draft report (there were several minor amendments attached today) and the district-by-district runs.  They have not been posted to the MDE website at this point, but should be shortly.  If you would like a copy, contact me.  Remember that the SEE office is out of commission due to the flooding at the MASA office complex, but I can still be reached at or 612-220-7459.

In closing, I hope to see a lot of you at the MSBA convention tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Task Mastering.  Monday and Tuesday saw the next round of task force meetings being undertaken by the Minnesota Department of Education take place.  On Monday, the Career Pathways and Technical Education Task Force met and began discussing its final recommendations.  My report that this would be the final meeting of this particular task force was inaccurate as it appears there will be two more meetings to finalize the report that must be presented to the Legislature by February 15, 2014.

The collection of recommendations currently being considered are very strong, but they are also a bit on prescriptive side in terms of planning and reporting required from districts, which somewhat impinges districts' ability to provide expanded programming and assistance for students.

Today, the Special Education Case Loads Task Force met today and made a  considerable amount of progress toward putting together its final report, also due on February 15, 2014.  One of the real challenges facing the Task Force is how to address the concerns of parents and special education teachers without hamstringing school districts by limiting their flexibility in the delivery of special education services.

Tomorrow, the School Facilities Working Group is meeting for what may its final time.  I am of the impression that this panel is closer to finishing its work, given the tenor of the discussions to this point.  There are a number of very promising provisions that will likely be in the final report on school facilities, particularly an expansion of districts currently not receiving alternative facilities revenue and increased equalization for all facilities-related levy/aid programs.  I will keep you posted on tomorrow's discussion.

Reminder.  With the recent damage to the lower level of the MASA office building, the SEE office located there is closed.  I am working out of my house, but with all the meetings taking place, I won't be there a whole lot.  I have my cell phone on me 24/7 and that number is 612-220-7459.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

SEE Underwater.  We don't have a mortgage and if we did, we probably wouldn't be underwater.  But our office is currently, if not underwater, very much soaked.  A pipe burst at the MASA office complex on Friday night/Saturday morning and being denizens of the basement, SEE's office is the one that got soaked (along with the MASA conference room).  Needless to say, I'm going to be busy packing things up for parts of the next few days, as desks, storage lockers, bookshelves, and the contents held in each will have to be moved so that new carpet and drywall can be installed.  The SEE phone will also be disconnected for the short-term, but I can still be reached at my cell phone number, which is 612-220-7459.  I will also be able to check my e-mail, which is

Big Week Ahead.  The fates couldn't have picked a worse week for a pipe to break.  Three, count'em, three draft reports will be issued from MDE task forces this week:  (1) the Career Pathways and Technical Education Task Force, (2) the Special Education Case Loads Task Force, and (3) the School Facilities Financing Working Group.  On top of that, the MSBA Winter Convention begins on Thursday and the Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation/Minnesota School Bus Operators Association Annual Joint Winter Convention is on Friday.  In other words, it's a wall-to-wall week of activity.

Speaking of the MSBA Convention.  SEE is co-hosting a meeting beginning at 4:50 on Thursday, January 16, at the Minneapolis Convention Center to discuss the "doughnut hole" issue.  Any district is welcome to attend, but discussion will center on strategies to assist those non-metro districts with between 1,000 and 2,000 pupil units and have thus been left out the Location Equity Index passed in 2013 and the small schools revenue passed in 2011.  I look forward to seeing many of you at the meeting.