April 6, 2020

MN Legislators Ready to Act on K-12: How House and Senate Proposals Compare 

By Krista Kaput

More than a week after Minnesota signed broad COVID-19 response legislation into law, the state’s House and Senate education committees are still working to develop proposals to address K-12 education. Senate and House leadership have given the education committees until close-of-business Monday, April 6, to come to an agreement on legislation to go before the full Legislature when they reconvene on April 14.

This week, the House will hold hearings on their bill. While nothing has been scheduled yet in the Senate, they have developed a full proposal. It’s a good time to take a look at how the two proposals compare, while keeping in mind that more changes are going to happen.

Both bills have several helpful provisions that would provide clarity and flexibility for K-12 schools, state agencies, and teacher preparation programs. There are also some areas where the bills differ significantly–and many issues that neither of the bills addresses, leaving plenty to figure out at district and school levels.

Here we discuss the similarities and differences between the two bills, as well as reflections on what’s missing.

What’s Different
Distance Learning Period 

House Bill: Defines the distance learning period as March 18 through May 4, 2020, unless extended by executive order. Mandates that a district or charter school must pay their hourly employees for any hours that they were scheduled to work but were unable to during the distance learning period.

Senate Bill: No proposal included.

Waiving Required Instructional Hours, Credit, and Other Student Requirements 

House Bill: Currently, students have to complete certain requirements before they can advance to the next grade level or graduate. The House bill allows the commissioner of education to waive some of those requirements for the current school year:

  • Minimum annual instructional hours (currently 935 for elementary and 1020 for middle and high school);
  • Required credits, including credits for advancing to the next grade; and
  • State graduation requirements.

Before granting waivers, the commissioner has to consider “the quality of the continuity of education and the mastery of academic standards, with provisions for students to demonstrate the potential toward grade advancement and graduation.” The commissioner must also consult with school board representatives from throughout the state.

Senate Bill: No proposal included.

School Aid Formulas

To ensure revenue does not fall below amounts estimated for the 2019-20 school year, both bills would give the commissioner of education authority to temporarily recalculate certain funding formulas: special education, school meals, career and technical education, nonpublic pupil transportation aid, interdistrict desegregation transportation aid, adult basic education aid, and school employees. The commissioner would have to report the changes and their impacts to the Legislature by January 15, 2021.

However, the House Bill expands on the list of funding formulas to include literacy incentive aid, community education after-school enrichment revenue, early childhood screening revenue, school-age care revenue, and achievement and integration aid.

Fund Transfers

House Bill: Allows a school district, charter school, or cooperative unit to transfer funds that were not already assigned (for example, unspent salary and benefits) from any reserve or operating fund to any other operating fund. Specifies how transferred funds may be spent, including additional costs related to transportation for distance learning and meal delivery, technology for distance learning, and more. The commissioner of education must develop more detailed guidance on how schools may use the funds. 

These allowable transfers are an important step in freeing up funds so schools can purchase devices and other supports to ensure all of their students can access distance learning.  

Senate Bill: No proposal included.

What’s the Same
Teacher Preparation and Licensure 

Operations at the state’s teacher preparation and licensing agency, Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB), are impacted by COVID-19. Both the Senate and House bills would require that PELSB:

  • issue one-year licenses to applicants unable to complete required license exams because of COVID-19, and
  • give currently licensed teachers a six-month extension to renew their 2020-21 licenses. This gives teachers extra time to complete cultural competency training, mentorships, and exams.

While the Legislature continues to work through its policies, PELSB is moving ahead to implement flexibility at the agency level. For example, adopting variances to reduce the required student teaching weeks from 12 to 10.

Assessments and Accountability 

Both proposals waive the annual standards-based assessments (the MCAs) for the year, along with state accountability and reporting requirements that are linked to the MCAs. The proposals also require the commissioner to redistribute money that was allocated for the statewide assessments.

This gives the official nod to what’s already in motion. Minnesota has already received initial approval to waive the MCAs for the year. Overall, waivers like this provide important flexibilities that can help our systems be more nimble in their COVID-19 response. At the same time, less information on student academic performance, schools in need of improvements, and progress made toward closing achievement gaps reduces system-wide accountability. These waivers require balanced state leadership to ensure we don’t stray too far from the equity goals that underlie many of these requirements.

Truancy

Both bills note that student absences from March 1 through the end of the distance-learning period do not count toward truancy referrals.

Spending Federal CARES Act Funds 

Both bills require the commissioner of education to prioritize how the state spends federal Corona Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to align with state-level executive orders related to K-12 education during COVID-19, including Governor Walz’s Executive Order on distance learning

This is a good first step since the state has an important role to play in spending these federal funds. That said, more work is needed to spend these funds effectively, ensuring that achievement gaps are not exacerbated, that students get the support they need to fully participate in distance learning, and that students have access to summer or other supplementary programming that addresses learning loss. 

What’s Missing? 

From conversations we have had with educators, students, families, and other advocacy organizations, we know there are many more areas of concern—lack of access to internet and devices, accommodations for students with special needs and English learners—that policymakers must address to ensure that all students are receiving a rigorous and engaging education in this new reality.

And even though the federal government just passed the CARES Act, which includes some dedicated funding for schools, it’s going to take weeks (if not months) for federal funds to flow to where they are needed. But students, families, and educators don’t have time to wait.

Minnesota legislators should act now to address the needs of students, especially our most underserved. Through policy and supplemental funding, we can make sure students aren’t left behind in the wake of COVID-19. Join us in calling on Minnesota leaders to act!

This blog was updated 4/6/20 at 10:55 pm to reflect House DE10. A previous version included provisions from House DE9, which did not include language on CARES Act spending or fund transfers, and had a shorter list of school aid formula waivers.