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K-12 education bill moves forward

Published (4/29/2010)
By Kris Berggren
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Tom Deans, an attorney with the Minnesota School Boards Association, follows along April 26 as the House K-12 Education Finance Division listens to a walk-through of the omnibus K-12 finance and policy bill. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Minnesota lawmakers can “sit and wait” for education reform to be imposed from outside or “shape our expectations of ourselves,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul).

He has championed key reforms even under opposition from some members of his own party, who tend to support teachers’ union positions on such issues as alternative teacher licensure pathways and linking teacher evaluations with ongoing contract decisions. Both reforms are included in the omnibus K-12 education bill approved April 28 by the House K-12 Education Finance Division.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) thanked Mariani, chairman of the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee, for taking positions based on research, not interest group advocacy. “I know it’s hard to stand up to constituency groups that line up on your side of the aisle.”

Mariani was the lone DFLer to join division Republicans on an amendment unsuccessfully offered by Garofalo that would have included the governor’s even tougher reforms, including five-year tenure renewal.

Nevertheless, the bill will “demonstrate to the public our intent to push on the frontiers of education reform,” Mariani said.

Sponsored by House K-12 Education Finance Division Chairwoman Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), HF2431 now goes to the House Finance Committee.

The competitive Race to the Top grant is an impetus for the proposed reforms but the tide of change is ongoing, Mariani said. He expects the anticipated reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, to maintain the trend of changing longstanding education practices.

The bill includes an alternative teacher licensure pathway, HF3093, sponsored by Mariani. It would allow candidates, such as Teach for America members, a limited two-year license if they have at least a bachelor’s degree, pass basic skills tests and complete at least 200 hours of instruction including student teaching. They could later apply for a continuing license.

However, Rep. Will Morgan (DFL-Burnsville) successfully offered an amendment proposing a similar alternative licensure plan. It would define much more narrowly the conditions where candidates for alternative licensure could be placed and delink the alternative process from the opportunity to move into a continuing license.

Alternative licensure pathways are intended to get teachers into certain high-need areas. Mariani’s bill would allow them to fill needs in shortage areas such as districts where too few qualified teachers have applied; or where racial and cultural diversity is sought to reflect the student population. The Morgan amendment would require all three conditions to be present in order to hire alternatively licensed teachers.

Mariani said the Morgan amendment, which he did not support, would cloud the issue in ongoing bill negotiations, and severely hamper a high-quality alternative licensure program from developing in Minnesota.

Another key reform would be annual teacher evaluations, as proposed in an amendment successfully offered by Mariani. They’re not required now, though some schools conduct them regularly.

Developing the evaluation process would be negotiated as part of a district’s collective bargaining agreement, but it would have to include multiple measures of teacher performance assessment, such as a portfolio of work, peer evaluation and the use of longitudinal data on student academic growth. While the proposal calls for strong supports, including professional development opportunities and peer and mentor coaching, the evaluations could be used to dismiss teachers who do not measure up.

Other policy provisions include tighter licensing rules for teachers and administrators; certain data sharing that could help the Board of Teaching, the Board of School Administrators and the Education Department to track educators’ performance; a new, end-of-course algebra assessment that creates a new model for accountability; and two different approaches to alternative teacher licensure pathways.

The bill proposes task forces in three areas:

• to encourage districts with fewer than 5,000 students to explore ways to share administrative, instructional and extracurricular activities;

• to follow-through on last year’s pledge to recommend alternative routes to graduation for students most at-risk or off-track to graduate from high school, after backing off on a high-stakes math test as a condition of graduation; and

• to recommend changes and legislation to the $114.5 million integration and desegregation revenue program, which a 2005 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor said lacks a clear purpose, is too loosely monitored by the Education Department and sometimes funds activities of “questionable” value.

The bill also incorporates the intent of HF3475, sponsored by Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin), which would establish an independent agency to monitor the permanent school trust land management.

Dittrich’s bill awaits action by the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee. Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood) sponsors a companion, SF3042, which awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill would also require school districts to adopt statewide physical education standards based on existing national standards, and would encourage them to participate in a Healthy Kids Award program and to implement quality recess practices. It would also encourage, but not mandate, districts to promote mental health instruction and would provide resources on age-appropriate curricula.

An early graduation program introduced last year by Garofalo, HF1177, would award eligible 12th grade students scholarships up to $7,500, which could be used at any accredited higher education institution. Districts’ resulting per pupil savings could be applied to an optional all-day kindergarten program.

Education advocates praised the bill’s financial relief proposals.

The bill would codify $1.7 billion of state aid and property tax payment shifts authorized by the governor last year, ensuring they will be repaid; allow school boards to extend an expiring operating referendum by a written resolution instead of a ballot question; and facilitate third-party billing of health care plans so school districts could more easily recoup special education costs from insurance companies or Medicaid.

“This is a real tough time for us in schools,” said Roger Aronson, legal and legislative counsel for the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association. “These are some things we really need.”

Education advocates also praised the “new Minnesota miracle” funding reform plan included in the bill. It would simplify the funding formula, increase the per pupil allocation from $5,124 to $7,500 and remove formula components that end up funding some districts at a greater rate than others. It would take effect in 2014, but the changes and their costs could be phased in over time as new revenue is generated.

The bill will eventually go to the House floor, then to a conference committee with Senate members, who will have to work out a compromise between their different versions of the bill.

The Senate omnibus bill, SF3028, sponsored by Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

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