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Education panel OKs omnibus finance bill that includes special ed funding

House Photography file photo
House Photography file photo

After finding common ground on special education funding and a controversial summative school-rating system, the House Education Finance Committee approved the omnibus education finance bill Wednesday evening.

“If we continue to focus on things that maybe are more divisive … we get nowhere,” said Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie). “I’m hoping that this is an important step that brings us together around things that are important, things that we can all support.”

Sponsored by Loon, the committee chair, HF4328, as amended, was approved on a 14-1 roll-call vote, with Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) providing the lone “no” vote. It now heads to the House Taxes Committee, where it is on Thursday’s agenda. Its companion, SF3928, sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester), awaits action by the Senate E-12 Finance Committee.


Modified summative rating system

Following Tuesday’s overview of the bill, the committee considered several amendments Wednesday; among those were provisions that would modify the contentious summative star-rating system.

The original language would have required the Department of Education to develop an academic achievement rating system based on students’ standardized test performance, growth rate and the achievement gap. Each school and district would be assigned a summative star rating, as well as an academic achievement score based on a zero-to-100 scale.

The system is intended to provide a more transparent and comprehendible rating system to help parents and the public decipher how their child’s school is performing. 

Opponents though, have argued, as it’s currently written, the rating system would not provide the meaningful information parents are seeking. Instead, it’ll create an overly simplified, inaccurate picture of public school performance.

It also drew criticism from Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius who said it would undermine the work currently underway to create a report card that aligns with the federal accountability system, ESSA.

“I can’t say strongly enough, and I’ve made my concerns known all along, that I cannot support a star-rating system. I feel that it’s a workaround of our stakeholder engagement process for ESSA,” she said. “This simplified star-rating system goes outside of our process and undermines the work of our ESSA committees these past two years.”

Several advocates noted third parties are already posting summative ratings of Minnesota schools and say the public would be better served if the department offered a reliable and accurate version.

“If you think there aren’t summative rating systems out there, just go look for a house … rates our schools,” Loon said. “They’re out there and I would like to make sure that we are providing with our best possible data, accurate information for parents.”

Aiming to find middle ground between the proposal and concerns of department, Loon successfully offered an amendment that—among other things—would allow the commissioner more flexibility to develop it.

“This is a good-faith effort on my part to recognize concerns have been raised but still noting that I think that a summative rating system is still a good idea,” she said. “What we’re proposing is that we allow the commissioner more latitude to develop this rather than crafting our own.”

Loon’s proposal would require the commissioner to present the system to the committee by February 2020, with it ready to be implemented in September 2020.  

“Our team is committed to a transparent, easy-to-read report card, with summary statements about a school’s progress and look forward to continuing to work on the language so it’s not confusing to our public, our parents or our teachers,” Cassellius said.


Special education funding

While special education funding has been top of mind for school districts, administrators, teachers and lawmakers this session, a major appropriation wasn’t included in the initial omnibus education finance bill.

To remedy this, Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth) successfully offered an amendment, similar to HF4271, sponsored by Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud). The amendment would create a new component of special education funding that would provide equity aid to school districts where the cross-subsidy is greater than the regional average. The change would amount to approximately an additional $20 million investment.

Marquart figured it would amount to around 1 percent of the General Fund reserve and that, if polled, parents, teachers, students and school district officials would consider it a small price to pay for getting a head start on addressing the special education cross-subsidy issue.

“The No. 1 goal is certainly the safe schools as your bill has it, but I do think we heard from testifiers loudly here that when it comes to the financing, that this special education piece is probably the next most important financial piece,” he said

The omnibus bill currently includes a provision to create a special education working group to address the cross-subsidy issue. However, Loon recognized the urgency some districts are facing when it comes to funding their special education expenses and supported the amendment.

“We’ve got to find a way to understand the factors contributing to this and what, if anything, we can do to try to control the growth in this area,” she said. “But I think that you raise an important point.”

Loon later proposed an oral amendment that would move the appropriation from the 2020-21 biennium to the 2022-23 biennium. The change was approved on a split voice vote. 

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