Budget Negotiations May Leave Minnesota a Laggard in School Reform

As legislative and executive branch leaders work on the education budget, it’s worth remembering all the good things that were in the K-12 omnibus bill vetoed by Gov. Dayton. Here’s what I wrote shortly about the bill back in May:

To get a feel for the size and scope of government, take a look at, say, the omnibus education spending bill. Depending on what format you print it in, it runs about 100 pages. But buried in it are some reforms that, at least on paper, sound very good.

First up, if you want to see the actual language, you can look at the fourth engrossment of H.F. 0934, and then click on the Acrobat icon. Of you can head to the Senate Journal for May 18, starting on page 2629. There’s a roll call for the Senate on page 2729 for the conference committee report. If 100 pages of legalese isn’t your thing, the House Research Department provides a helpful 20-page summary.

And if that’s still too much, read on for my own thoughts on it all–though be warned, this is not a comprehensive review.

Schools get grades

One component of Florida’s school reforms, which have been accompanied by impressive gains in student achievement as measured by standardized tests, is a system for grading public schools. The omnibus legislation would establish a grading system for Minnesota public schools, including charter schools. It takes into account not just raw test scores, but (more importantly) student gains on test scores. Schools get letter grades (A–F), and schools that do exceptionally well get cash bonuses. (27.23ff)

So do teachers and principals

The legislation calls for the creation of “a teacher evaluation structure … to provide information about teacher effectiveness.” (46.8). Teachers will be rated on a five-point scale, and their standing will be reported to the Minnesota Department of Education. As far as I can tell, the legislation contains no requirement that pay scales be adjusted as a result–except for districts that voluntarily enter into an alternative pay scale.

On the other hand, the legislation does replace tenure with five-year renewable contracts, and adds teacher ineffectiveness as a grounds for terminating a teacher. (33.24) While there are problems with standardized tests and few job evaluations are free of any hint of subjectivity, this change, if actually implemented, is long overdue–even if it does have a generous (six month!) remediation period.

In addition, the legislation removes the “first hired, first laid off” rule, and directs that school districts use teacher effectiveness in managing layoffs. (36.7)

No strikes

Teacher strikes are prohibited if the district offers teachers a raise that is at least as big as its increase in revenue. (30.33ff). It’s a heavy-handed way of addressing wage claims, but it may be as good as we can get in a situation in which politics and government control nearly every aspect of education.

Graduate early, get a college scholarship

One change in that law that parents will find especially useful establishes a scholarship provision for students who graduate from high school early. Some students are able to graduate from high school early. Given that taxpayers spend over $10,000 per year on each student, the result is a savings to the public purse, with no financial benefit to the student or his/her family–until now. Under the bill, such students are eligible for a college scholarship of up to $7,500 scholarship. The amount of the scholarship ranges from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on how early the student graduates. The early-graduation student who enters the military instead of college can receive the scholarship money as a cash payout. The idea of sharing the cost-savings from early graduation is a win-win. (5.19ff) Funding for the awards will be baked into the general education budget and not a separate appropriation, which will make it less tempting to cut in the future. (13.17ff)

Poor students in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Duluth, get a ticket out

The legislation offers vouchers to a limited group of students: Low-income students from first-class cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth) who attend persistently failing schools get about $5,000 (maximum) for use at a private school. (61.8ff). (The amount could be lower, depending on the school’s expenses.) The schools would have to administer state-approved tests, and that could make some advocates of private schools and parental choice wary. From my point of view, I’d prefer some sort of  tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations (see: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida), but there’s nothing to say that multiple avenues for parental choice can’t exist in the same state.

Curriculum: Common Core prohibited

Here’s the most important thing to know:  ”The commissioner is prohibited from adopting common core state standards in any subject and school year listed in any revision cycle under this section that were developed with the participation of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.”  (27.18) My take? It’s not that I think the current standards in state law are preferable as much as I think nationally derived standards will be worse.

Homeschooling: A few adjustments

Homeschoolers will find some increased flexibility–and perhaps some clawbacks. Currently, homeschooling parents must (in theory if not in practice) negotiate with the local school superintendent over what test they will administer to comply with state law. (The law calls for a nationally norm-referenced test, such as the Iowa Basic Skills test.) The bill deletes the provision that parents and superintendent must come to an agreement, and adds the option of administering a national college entrance exam. It also removes the requirement that parents administer tests in subjects (such as phys ed) that are not covered by such tests. (2.23ff)

The bill also changes some reporting requirements for homeschooling, making them a one-time affair until the parents move to another district. (3.11ff) It also simplifies some reporting requirements imposed on school superintendents. (4.24ff)

If a child enters a public school after being in a home school, the parents must now submit standardized test results “to determine where the child is placed in school.” I’m not sure the current requirements that obtain (if any), but this sounds like an extra burden on parents. (4.9ff)


The bill increases the “basic formula allowance” by $20 per pupil for fiscal year 2012, and and $21 per pupil for FY 2013. Some critics may cringe at this, but I believe that it’s a small price to pay for some of the useful reforms in the legislation. (It is all of 4 percent higher than the comparable number for FY 2007.) (9.4ff) There are several changes to the byzantine funding formula, including things such as “compensatory education revenue” and “secondary sparsity revenue.”

Schools as social service agencies

One potentially troublesome part (57.31ff) establishes “full-service school zones,” which further solidifies schools as social-service agencies.

More to Come

There is also language about charter schools (no new start-up aid, some new requirements), special education, and a few other topics that bears examination. More on that later. But the key question is this: How much of this will actually be put into law?

This has been a banner year for school reform in several states. That’s true whether you’re talking about increasing parental choice, putting some financial discipline into the government entities known as school districts, or finally treating teachers are professionals rather than workers on a factory line (“seniority only, please!”) Aside from an alternative certification route for teachers–nice, but hardly a game-changer–Minnesota has been a laggard in education reform.

It’s time for that to change.

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