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At Issue: No shifts, no cuts

Published (5/29/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Minnesota schools emerged fairly unscathed in the state budget battle of 2009. Education funding will hold steady at $13.7 billion for the 2010-2011 biennium and increase to $14.1 billion the following biennium.

The law, effective July 1, 2009, includes $500 million in one-time federal economic stimulus money, but not $1.8 billion in accounting shifts proposed by the House but rejected in the conference committee. However, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to implement similar shifts through the same authority by which he has pledged to unallot portions of the state budget.

“While we’re very proud of this budget, who would think we would ever have to be proud of not cutting or not paying the schools late?” asked Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), who sponsors the law with Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer).

In a message to legislative leaders, Pawlenty said that he signed the law “with reluctance,” because it doesn’t increase education spending as he had proposed, or include his reform proposals, such as several teacher-training programs, his Pay for Progress incentive or a statewide implementation of the alternative teacher compensation plan known as Q Comp.

The governor isn’t the only one who isn’t thrilled.

“There’s a big gap between where this (law) is and where it could be,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), the House K-12 Education Finance Division minority lead. “It cuts $185 million from the governor’s education budget. It lacks reform.”

The law isn’t exactly what Greiling hoped for either, because it does not include the proposal to stabilize and simplify education funding, known as the “new Minnesota Miracle” which would have equalized state aid to districts statewide and eliminated property tax levies from the funding formula.

Others said the law does include meaningful reforms they expect will pay off in coming years, including new ways of measuring student performance; significant and hard-won special education changes and mandate reductions; and a provision allowing school districts to create site-governed schools.

A facelift for charters

The law makes the most significant reforms to charter schools since 1991, when Minnesota became the first state to allow their development.

“Whether someone hates charters or loves them, they’re not going away,” said Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL-Richfield), so it makes sense “to make them more responsive and more responsible and better in our communities.”

The responsibilities of charter school authorizers (formerly known as sponsors) are strengthened and the fees they may charge increased; a more rigorous process for application to open a new charter school is established; board financial training is required and conflict of interest rules clarified.

School boards may now approve site-governed schools, which function as a kind of hybrid of charter and district schools that allow teachers freedom to innovate while retaining district status, especially to reach students not well served by traditional schools. Rep. John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka) compares the concept to the professionalism of “forming a practice, like a law firm or doctor’s office.” Greiling called it a “cutting-edge” model and a national first.

Testing is examined

A highly disputed alternative path to graduation for students who cannot pass a high-stakes math test is included. While Pawlenty expressed his disappointment with the measure, calling it a “step backward” in efforts to raise academic standards, its advocates were concerned that thousands of high school juniors could fail the test this year, leaving them in postsecondary limbo without a diploma.

The GRAD’s (Graduation-Required Assessment for Diploma) effectiveness will be studied, but in the meantime the new law relieves some testing anxiety. New measures of student progress assessing students’ year-to-year growth in addition to standards-based knowledge will “fully, fairly and accurately report student achievement and measure school excellence” and represent “the critical reform in this bill,” said Rep. Kathy Brynaert (DFL-Mankato).

All eyes on the achievement gap

Lawmakers kept their eye on a guiding goal: their desire to close the nation’s biggest achievement gap between white students and students of color, which Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee chairman, calls an “opportunity gap.”

Early learning and literacy are considered the foundation for future school success. The law expands a pilot Quality Rating and Improvement System for child care facilities to help parents gauge their child care choices by considering how programs address school readiness, as well as other factors like safety and family support. It establishes a Minnesota Reading Corps to train Head Start teachers in literacy instruction, and requires that pre-kindergarten and elementary teacher candidates must successfully complete a reading instruction assessment as part of their exam for licensure.

Integration revenue, the $92 million funding category intended to reduce segregation through cross-cultural programs, magnet schools and other means, is an old-school response to concerns about making sure all children get a high-quality education. The program was scrutinized by the Office of the Legislative Auditor in 2005 and found wanting. The new law redefines its purpose to include closing the achievement gap and requires school districts’ integration budget plans to be approved by their boards, or in the case of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth districts, by the education commissioner, before integration revenue is awarded.

As classrooms in every corner of the state are absorbing a demographic transition to a more diverse, less affluent and sometimes more mobile student body, Mariani issued a gentle challenge to what he called the “E-12 establishment.”

“I think we are really going to need you to step up not just simply to protect the wonderful schools and school districts that you have,” Mariani said, “but to really be courageous about suggesting different ways to restructure, if you will, the delivery of K-12 education.”


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