What’s the Legislature up to on Education? Your Mid-Session Recap
By Josh Crosson
The 2018 state legislative session is well under way and education has again become a priority for our lawmakers. While the education policy omnibus bills are quickly moving through the legislative process, advocates are still anxiously awaiting education finance bills to see how they compare with Gov. Dayton’s priorities. In the final weeks of session, debate will heat up over the key issues that have emerged so far.
Leading up to session, Minnesota’s political fortunetellers predicted yet another year where Democrats and Republicans would head to their corners to argue an array of issues ranging from early learning to student data privacy. Then, after February’s Parkland school shooting, other education issues moved to the backseat while Gov. Dayton, senators, and representatives came together to improve school safety (with a focus on investments in school facilities upgrades) and school climate (with a focus on reforming discipline practices).
After years of stalled debate around school discipline, legislators have been able to find some consensus around the issue. Republican leaders came into session ready to act on several key proposals to encourage school leaders to move toward non-exclusionary discipline practices, including restorative justice and positive behavior interventions. The Governor’s plan includes similar language.
Given the overlap among the various branches’ proposals around both discipline and school safety, we should expect to see progress, in both policy and spending.
Not every education issue has legislators singing “Kumbaya.” One of the most hotly contested education issues this year is whether to make district and school performance information easily accessible to families and the public through straightforward summative ratings. Currently, over 40 states use, or plan to use, such ratings to help make sense of how schools are doing. Whether through star ratings, a scale from 1-100, or intuitive colors like green, yellow, and red, these states summarize how schools are serving kids so that families have clear information when they research the right schools for their children.
After hearing testimony from several parents and data quality experts, proposals were included in both the House and Senate omnibus bills to have Minnesota join these states by creating a summative rating system. Though there is significant momentum behind the proposal, it remains controversial and there have been several hearings digging deep into both the merits and the details. This is likely to remain a top debate that will require compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, and with Gov. Dayton.
“ACADEMIC BALANCE” BILL
The second issue surrounded by so much drama it should have its own reality TV show is called “The Academic Balance Bill.” Championed by Senate Education Finance Chair Carla Nelson, this bill has made statewide news and, despite the controversy, is likely to find its way into a final Senate bill. This legislation would require schools to create policies to, among other things, reprimand educators who discuss or require students to engage in “controversial matters.” Its supporters argue that this bill would deter “political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination” in schools. Meanwhile, its critics—including EdAllies, Education Minnesota, and the Star Tribune editorial board—worry that the bill would instead scare educators away from even introducing their students to critical issues in class, including racial equity, religion, or even subjects of history like colonization. Given the tremendous pushback against this bill, it seems likely that this issue could be a sticking point in final negotiations between the House and Senate Republicans.
The last big issue getting a lot of debate time is teacher licensure. Last year, the Legislature passed a historic law to replace the state’s confusing and broken teacher licensure system with a much simpler tiered system. This new licensure system—which recognizes educators’ experience, training, and impact in the classroom—is set to take effect on July 1 of this year. However, the Professional Educator and Licensing Standards Board, which is in charge of implementing the new system, is attempting to delay implementation by another 8-12 months. There are also efforts to change the new tiered system so that a teacher’s experience and positive performance evaluations would not be factors in whether they receive their license. Meanwhile, supporters of the 2017 legislation (EdAllies included) contend that it’s critical to consider a teacher’s experience and effectiveness. Further, school leaders, teachers, and Minnesota students can’t afford another year with our current, broken system.
The Republican education chairs are sticking to the 2017 legislation, and pushing for full implementation of the new system by the July 1 deadline. Nonetheless, because the issue has become a partisan lightning rod, legislators on both sides of the aisle will need continued pressure from advocates to do what’s best for students and schools.
Policymakers are also discussing several other provisions like mandating affirmative-consent education, making district finances more transparent, aligning our accountability systems, making the MCAs more meaningful for parents and educators, expanding early learning funding, ensuring screening for dyslexia, supporting kids with school lunch debt, and much more. As these and other topics move through the Legislature, we’ll be sure to let you know how proposals will impact students, especially our most historically underserved learners, and how you can take action.