May 18, 2021

Next Up: Special Session! What We’re Watching on Education

By Matt Shaver

The Minnesota legislature officially adjourned Monday afternoon, but with a lot of work unfinished. Once again, legislators will have to come back for a special session to finish passing key bills, including the two-year state budget. In the meantime, committees will work off of a big picture budget agreement agreed to by the Governor and legislative leaders on Monday. The agreement allocates $525 million in new spending for our state’s E-12 education system. With these parameters in place, legislators will now work to complete committee budgets by May 28 and finalize policy agreements by June 4. 

Much work remains before the dust settles on education. The DFL-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate both passed their education omnibus bills in late April. The two sides started out very far apart with a gap of around $600 million in new spending and very different approaches on policy to reconcile. To work through these differences, a 10-member conference committee has been holding near-daily public meetings over the past two weeks. The conference committee came to agreement on a total of sixteen policy items, but left most controversial issues unresolved. 

Read on for details on what’s been agreed to, what’s still up for debate, and what to expect next. 

What did the conference committee agree to?

Most of the agreements so far are on noncontroversial issues or issues where the House and Senate brought similar proposals to the table through their final omnibus bills. A few of these agreements include issues we’ve been tracking closely this session:

Charter School Quality 

One of the 16 policy agreements the conference committee reached was on improving the corrective action process and timeline for charter school authorizers. This bipartisan legislation will help ensure that authorizers are providing quality leadership and support for charter schools and the families who choose them. 

School Meals and Lunch Shaming 

Putting an end to lunch shaming has been a longstanding goal for advocates and legislators and it appears it will finally happen. One of the agreements in conference committee was to include new language to ban a school’s ability to take food from children or punish them for having unpaid lunch debt. The way to guarantee an end to lunch shaming would be to offer free meals to all students, an idea being shepherded by the Healthy, Hunger Free Schools Coalition

COVID-19 Recovery for Students with Disabilities

Given the challenges to teaching and learning in the past year, re-engaging students, getting them physically back in schools, and addressing the growing gaps in academics and social-emotional learning is critical. Decisions around whether to continue distance learning in some form next school year are still up in the air. One of the bills that was adopted by the conference committee addresses the disproportionate impact of distance learning on students with disabilities by requiring districts to create individualized learning plans for recovery. However, larger questions around parameters for distance learning in future school years remain.

What We’re Still Watching

With only a few agreements ironed out, there is a lot we’re still watching. Here’s where things stand on the issues we’ll be tracking closely over the next few weeks:

Career and College Readiness

Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to increase access to rigorous courses and make sure 9th-grade students are on-track to graduate in four years, with schools required to report these two measures in their annual World’s Best Workforce reports. Both Education Omnibus bills contained the 9th-grade on-track measure, while the House also included disaggregated data reporting of all students taking rigorous courses. 

Even though the conference committee did not act upon either of these policy measures prior to adjournment on May 17, it doesn’t mean the measures are dead. The legislators could still agree to include some version of this language in their final bill by the June 4 deadline. 

School Discipline 

There was a lot of discussion during conference committee about how to eliminate K-3 behavior dismissals. The negotiations broke down over what the definition of “safety threat” should include. After some back and forth, the latest language on the table said: “a child poses a safety threat when the child willfully causes or attempts to cause serious and substantial physical harm to another person.” Both sides are in general agreement that suspending and expelling 8-year-olds does not help them learn and that students of color are disproportionately mistreated in discipline decisions. With that in mind, it would be a shame not to see a ban on dismissals for our youngest learners.   

Equitable School Funding 

A proposal in the House sought to change policy around the compensatory revenue stream, ensuring that the highest-poverty schools don’t miss out on funding. By lifting the cap on compensatory revenue, an additional $10 million a year would be available to schools that serve more than 80% of enrolled students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. There are around 150 schools throughout the state—serving about 45,000 students—who would benefit from this equitable fix to the state’s largest categorical funding stream. This bill was included in the House bill but not in the Senate and is still in the mix for final negotiations. 

Teacher Licensure

The House omnibus bill includes harmful changes to Minnesota’s tiered licensure system that will still be on the table during final negotiations. During conference committee, a diverse group of teachers, students, community members, and other stakeholders made a strong case for maintaining diverse pathways to the classroom, providing nearly an hour of testimony and pushing back against these proposals. Other than public testimony, no action was taken on the licensure provisions by the conference committee before adjournment.

What’s Next? 

With the legislature now adjourned, the conference committees are dissolved. The work of creating an agreement between the House and Senate within the $525 million target and crafting policy changes will happen more informally using a “working group” model. In this situation, there are usually fewer public-facing meetings and negotiations take place behind the scenes.

One of the biggest questions that still needs to be resolved is how much to spend on the per-pupil general education formula. The House proposed a 2% annual increase, aligned with the trend since 2015. To achieve this, the committee must agree to devote about $400 million of the $525 million available for education. Other high-priority funding items may be increasing reimbursement for special education, mental health counseling and support for students, and early childhood education. Smaller ticket items may include literacy training for teachers and a variety of investments aimed at diversifying the teacher workforce.

We’ll be closely tracking proposals between now and June 4th, and keeping advocates looped in on opportunities to act. We expect the committee to work through these issues, even if it’s behind closed doors, knowing that if they don’t, any unresolved matters will either be decided by leadership or fall by the wayside until the 2022 Legislative session.