Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Special Education Hearing.  There has been a lot of discussion around the special education issue both in terms of funding shortfalls and paperwork and procedural burdens early this legislative session.  Improving the special education formula is on almost every--if not all--platforms of the major education lobbying group.  The growing amount of revenue being diverted from districts' general funds to pay for special education costs that exceed their special education formula revenue has indeed reached a level that is untenable.

As important as correcting the funding issue is (and it will receive extensive attention during the 2019 Legislative Session), special education procedures that add hours of paperwork for special education teachers and special education administrators to perform took center stage at today's Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.  Over the summer, the Senate held a series of committee meetings that looked at special education procedures in hopes of easing some of the regulatory burden faced by school districts while ensuring that the rights of special education students are not eroded in the process.

The New Ulm school district, led by Superintendent Jeff Bertrang and Special Services Coordinator Irina Soboleva, took a long look at procedures they believe add to teachers' paperwork burden but add little to the education product delivered to students qualifying to special education.  The results of New Ulm's work found its way into a series of bills that the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee heard today.

The first bill up was SF 749, a bill authored by Senator Gary Dahms, that would eliminate the requirement that school districts must offer parents a conciliation conference prior to a dispute resolution conference.

Next up was SF 482, Senator Eric Pratt's bill that would allow, but not require, districts to state or district assessments related to the student's educational needs.

Senator Paul Anderson's SF 244 was up next.  Like SF 749, SF 244 alters the conciliation conference process.

Fourth in the queue was SF 640, authored by Senator Paul Utke.  Currently, a transition plan for special education student must be developed by the time the student enters the ninth grade.  This goes beyond Federal law, which only requires that the plan be developed by the time the student turns 16.

Senator Dahms returned to the stand with SF 717, a bill that would allow districts to perform a functional behavioral assessment without having to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the student.

The day closed with Senator Greg Clausen presenting SF 159, a bill that would eliminate the requirement that all individualized learning plans contain short-term objectives.  Short-term objectives would still be required for students taking alternative assessments.

As is the case with all discussions regarding special education policy, diverging opinions--sometimes strong opinions--were expressed by the different sides of the debate.  Parent and advocacy groups spoke against the changes, arguing that the proposals would erode provisions that protect the rights of special education students.  On the other hand, proponents of the changes point out that the paperwork burden on teachers and the current conciliation and dispute resolution employed is crippling districts and causing a teacher shortage.  Having followed discussions like this for the past thirty years, I can say emphatically that no new ground was covered and we remain stuck in a system in drastic need of sensible change.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the bills that came forward today, they need to be looked upon as an honest effort to alter the current paradigm.  We may or may not see progress this year, but it was healthy to see a public discussion of the challenges being faced by school districts.

I'm Lagging on Bill Intros.  I haven't been keeping up, but rest assured I will be posting some very key bill introductions in tomorrow's update.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Full Day Wednesday.  Wednesday is the only day of the legislative week when all three education-related committees meet.  The morning kicks off with the the House Education Finance Division meeting with the afternoon has overlapping meetings of the House Education Policy Committee and the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee.

Today's House Education Funding Division meeting dealt with the issue of English language learners and how the current formula that funds programs to help these students become proficient in English falls far short of fully meeting the level of funding needed by districts to address this pressing issue.  The special education cross-subsidy of over $700 million (the amount of general fund revenue needed to pay districts' special education obligations) deservedly garners a lot of attention as it is certainly a challenge for school districts.  While not as significant in terms of magnitude, the current cross-subsidy to make up for the difference in funding provided by the current English language learner funding formula and the actual cost of programming provided by districts throughout the state is approximately $100 million.

A variety of districts testified to the importance of addressing this funding shortfall.  Todd Sesker (pictured below), superintendent at Faribault, was one of the school administrators that addressed the committee and he shared the experience of Faribault, where approximately 25% of the student population is non-English speaking.  The current English language funding formula leaves Faribualt about $1 million short of what it is spending to run its English language programs.  Other districts testifying were Osseo and Waseca.

The committee then turned to a bill authored by Representative Kaohly Her that would increase English language formula funding by $100 million.  The bill--HF 448--increases both the formula and the component of basic skills revenue related to non-English speaking students.

The House Education Policy Committee held a joint hearing with the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee to hear presentations on childhood trauma and how school districts can work with students that register high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score.  Here is a link to the ACE test so you can get an idea of the experiences that lead to high levels of trauma in children.  Take the ACEs Quiz

The Senate Education Funding and Policy Committee spent its hearing on reading issues, especially as they relate to the diagnosis of dyslexia and the training of teachers to recognize dyslexia in students.  Evidence-based reading instruction has proven effective, but that doesn't mean there are different camps in the debate over what qualifies as effective evidence-based methodology.

The bills discussed today included:

SF 651--Chamberlain--Requires dyslexia screening for all students.
SF 116--Clausen--Requires training for teachers to enable them to meet the needs of students with dyslexia.
SF 196--Clausen--Requires teacher preparation programs to include instruction on dyslexia.
SF 733--Nelson--Provides for professional development to improve reading instruction.  This bill mentions several "brands" of staff development by name and if I've learned anything over my years of education-watching, when assembling any list of approved vendors, someone is going to be left out and there will be comments to that effect.  Senator Nelson did a good job of allaying those concerns and it will be interesting to see how this bill advances.  It is clear that improved reading is at the center of the Senate's education policy agenda and there will be a lot of discussion around how to improve reading and reach all students regardless of learning style.
SF 229--Eichorn--Appropriates money for Minnesota reading and math corps programs at American Indian-controlled tribal contract and grant schools.
SF 772--Eichorn--Appropriates money for dyslexia training for teachers.

Yesterday's Hearings.  I didn't post yesterday, but there were two education-related hearings.  First was the House Education Funding Division, which used its hearing to learn more about school nutrition programs and the challenges faced by school food service professionals in putting together programs that provide healthy meal options while keeping an eye on costs.

The House Education Policy Committee concentrated on special education procedures.  The question that keeps popping up is "How can we reduce the paperwork requirements of teachers while continuing to ensure the due process rights of special education students?"  The Minnesota Department of Education provided a description to Minnesota's special education law and where we go beyond Federal requirements.  The committee then turned to St. Croix River Education District Executive Director Jamie Nord and Special Education Director Nicole Woodward (pictured) for suggestions as to how paperwork can be reduced and some of the tensions districts experience in the monitoring and compliance process.  The hearing wrapped up with testimony from two special education teachers and the daily challenges they face while trying to meet paperwork requirements and spending time with students.  The turnover of special education teachers continues to be a pressing problem for school districts and the main reason most special education teachers leave the profession is the burden of paperwork.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Session in Full Swing.  We've reached the second lap of the legislative session.  The first lap is the "getting to know you" portion of the session, when newly-formed committees become acquainted with the issues the committee will be covering and the interests that will be commenting on these issues.  That includes hearing a lot of reports on funding systems and reports on the implementation of policies that were adopted last biennium.  

Now in the second lap, we begin to hear actual proposals (usually, but not always) in the form of bills that have been introduced by various legislators.  The Senate Education Funding and Policy Committee heard five bills today and all will be held over for possible inclusion in the Senate's omnibus education bill that will be constructed later this spring.

SF 15 was the first bill up and it sparked a bit of spirited discussion.  Senator Mike Goggin's bill would require school districts to provide information on careers in the construction, skilled trades, and the military.  The language from this bill was included in last year's vetoed omnibus supplemental funding and policy bill and was viewed as largely non-controversial.  Three military veterans testified against the bill, urging the committee not to promote the military as an option, believing that decision should be arrived at without encouragement.

The next bill up was SF 295, Chair Carla Nelson's bill promoting P-TECH schools.  The concept underlying P-TECH schools has been around for awhile, but serious interest in it is a relatively new phenomenon.  A graduate of a P-TECH school would ideally leave school with both a high school diploma and an ISO certificate.  That would put them in a position to go directly into the job market, often in a field where there is currently a labor shortage.  I believe this is the same framework of the Sarah Goode High School in Chicago that was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in February, 2014.  The text of the accompanying article is here:  The School that Will Get You a Job.

Third in line was SF 19, a bill authored by Senator Steve Cwodzinski that would require students to take a personal finance course in order to graduate from high school.  The testimony from all parties outlined the value of (and need to) learning personal finance concepts and how to apply them, but there is a question as to whether or not requiring a course is the right way to go given the difficulty of fitting the current course requirements into each students' schedule and allowing students ample opportunity to choose some electives.

Senator Justin Eichorn's SF 94--a bill that would allow students in non-public schools to use Post-Secondary Enrollment Options to take career and technical education courses at a Minnesota Technical College--was heard next.  This bill would affect very few students statewide, but would create needed opportunities for those students.

Last in the line of bills was Chair Nelson's SF 293, a bill requiring the Minnesota Commissioner of Education to collaborate on construction and skilled trades counseling.

The meeting ended with an report on a provision contained in the 2017 omnibus education funding bill.  That provision provided grants to rural career and technical education consortiums (shouldn't that be consortia?) to promote their programs to students.  Soutwest/West Central Service Cooperative Director Cliff Carmody and the Cooperative's Career and Technical Project Coordinator provided a very positive synopsis of how the grant they received has led to great opportunities for students in the region.