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K-12 education omnibus bill stalls

Published (5/6/2010)
By Kris Berggren
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Dueling alternative teacher licensure proposals in the omnibus K-12 education bill have divided DFL lawmakers and stalled the bill’s progress.

HF2431, sponsored by Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), was pulled from the House Ways and Means Committee agenda shortly before the May 5 meeting.

That’s because the DFL caucus disagrees on which proposal to support. Greiling said about half support a proposal preferred by Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union. The other half support stronger reforms proposed by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee chairman.

“We had a very civil caucus on the matter, but we’re stuck at the moment,” said Greiling, chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Finance Division.

Alternative licensure options can help meet shortage needs in some districts, in subject areas such as math, or specialties such as bilingual or special education. They can help districts recruit a more racially and culturally diverse candidate pool, and bring in nontraditional candidates, such as Teach for America members or mid-career changers, to become teachers without a four-year education degree.

HF3093, sponsored by Mariani, would allow candidates for alternative licensure a limited two-year license if they have a bachelor’s degree, pass basic skills tests and complete at least 200 hours of instruction, including student teaching. Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) sponsors a companion, SF2811, which has been incorporated into another Bonoff-sponsored bill, SF2757. It awaits action by the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division.

Allowing wider alternative teacher licensure pathways is necessary to meet criteria for a federal Race to the Top grant of up to $175 million over four years. However, the teachers’ union is generally critical of alternatives to the traditional preparation program that includes about a semester of student teaching. Greiling said that other unions also oppose the bill, including the AFL-CIO, from which she received a letter stating their opposition.

“I would hope union politics wouldn’t get in the way of a compromise. It would be a shame if we didn’t pass the bill,” Greiling said.

An amendment successfully offered to the omnibus bill by Rep. Will Morgan (DFL-Burnsville) April 28 in the House K-12 Education Finance Division proposes a different pathway targeted to mid-career changers. It would require a bachelor’s degree in the licensure area and at least 10 years of experience in a related field, or a valid teaching license and at least five years of classroom teaching experience. It would require a minimum 200-hour instructional phase plus a full-time supervised student teaching experience of at least 12 weeks.

A problem for school districts is that they’d have to hire two people, the alternative licensure candidate and a teacher who would be in the classroom with the student teacher. He’s sympathetic to districts’ financial concerns, but Rep. John Ward (DFL-Brainerd) said that close supervision ensures quality preparation.

“I want to put the best, most highly qualified person in front of our children that’s possible,” Ward said. He hopes for a legislative deal, but won’t compromise on the importance of a higher quantity of student teaching hours.

He said a 200-hour “instructional phase” alone is not a guarantee of enough actual supervised experience before a teacher assumes control of a classroom.

Other provisions

The bill contains other policy reforms that could better position Minnesota for the grant, several funding proposals that could give school districts more flexibility and stability in funding and a major education funding reform package known as the “new Minnesota miracle.”

Two provisions address financial mechanisms the state used this year to cover its cash flow at the expense of school districts. One would codify the shifts enacted by Pawlenty in 2009 that resulted in payments to schools that were 17 percent lower than usual. Property tax recognition shifts were also made. If not put into law, they could be considered cuts by a future administration that could then decide not to repay them.

A second would no longer require the state to tap school districts’ cash reserves for loans before short-term borrowing elsewhere. This spring, $423 million was borrowed from school districts with cash reserves that exceeded $700 per pupil. Greiling said it’s likely the state would do so again in the fall if the statute isn’t repealed.

Advocates also like a provision allowing school boards to renew expiring levy referenda at the same rate and term by written resolution, without going to voters.

Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth) successfully offered an amendment May 4 in the House Taxes Committee that would allow a “reverse” referendum. Within 60 days of a school board deciding to extend a levy, 30 percent of voters could sign a petition to revoke the board’s decision and put it before voters.

“This is a tough one, no doubt,” Marquart said. “The fact that school funding has been flat has put a lot of school districts in a very tough situation.”

Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) successfully offered an amendment to the amendment that would allow districts with more than 60 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, which had a referendum that expired between Jan. 2004 and Jan. 1, 2010, to renew the expired referendum in the same manner, although not retroactively.

Also included is a bump to $7,500 per pupil, and new components of revenue, such as a location equity index, that would eliminate inequities by tax base or geographic factors.

Greiling acknowledges the proposed major funding reforms are merely a “placeholder in hopes we could right our ship by 2014.” At least 24 education groups support the proposals, which would return the onus of funding schools to the state and remove it from property taxpayers. It would fully fund the state’s portion of special education, which is now capped. Districts end up paying for special education, which is federally mandated, but only partly funded, with “cross-subsidies” from their other programs.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer) sponsors three companion bills: SF3189, the policy omnibus bill, which awaits action by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee; and education finance bills SF3063 and SF3028, which await action by the full Senate.

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