May 28, 2019

The 2019 Education Bill: What Made the Cut?

By Josh Crosson

After going into overtime, the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its work for the year proving, once again, that the only thing consistent about creating public policy is that no two legislative sessions are ever the same.

This year, the education committees in the Republican-controlled Senate and the DFL-controlled House were tasked with building a budget to fund local schools and advancing policies to strengthen how we serve Minnesota students. With different parties in charge of each body, the final proposals from each side had little in common. And despite hours of debate, they found little room for compromise. Ultimately, legislative leadership stepped in to craft a last-minute education bill with some key funding provisions, but most policy change was left by the wayside.

There is much to cheer and jeer in this final compromise. Here are a few proposals we were watching throughout the year.

SCHOOL FUNDING

Even if you were just skimming the education debates, you probably heard the calls to address funding. The final agreement adds over a half billion dollars of new money to public education’s coffers over the next two years—making PreK-12 education one of the overall top funding priorities. About $389 million will go to the per-pupil formula, increasing it by 2 percent in 2020 and another 2 percent in 2021.

Most of the remaining money went to increasing funding for special education (another hotly debated priority) and continuing pre-kindergarten for public school programs otherwise set to end this year:

  • There was strong advocacy to increase special education funding this year, and EdAllies focused on ensuring that, as we work to close funding gaps, we work to hold students with disabilities harmless regardless of where they choose to attend. The House education bill would have cut charter school special education funding by about 20 percent. Luckily, Governor Walz advanced a stronger proposal that increases special education funding for school districts, while also holding harmless students who choose to attend charters.
  • The early learning debate was also big, with the House fighting to maintain district-managed pre-k programs and the Senate fighting to invest instead in flexible, parent-directed early learning scholarships. In the end, it was a disappointing year for early learning, with all funding going to maintain district funding and no new investment scholarships for low-income learners.
LICENSURE

Attempts to erect licensure barriers for our high-quality educators eventually failed during negotiations, and teachers will retain diverse pathways to the classroom for now.

Over 8,000 Minnesota educators—and over 23 percent of our teachers of color—currently teach with a Tier 1, Tier 2, or special permission license. This year, the House attempted to remove pathways to permanent licensure, block effective teachers from the classroom, and prevent school leaders from hiring and retaining skilled teachers. In response to countless stories from educators and school leaders, the Senate pushed back against these proposals. Attempts to erect licensure barriers for our high-quality educators eventually failed during negotiations, and teachers will retain diverse pathways to the classroom for now. Unfortunately, in a final speech, Rep. Kunesh-Podein—author of the House licensure bill—promised to resurrect her efforts in 2020.

DATA & TRANSPARENCY

For educators to make data-driven decisions, they need … well … data. This year there was mixed news:

  • In bad news, the Legislature made no progress on improving school performance transparency, despite strong parent organizing and unique proposals from both parties. One bill sought to re-vamp Minnesota’s confusing and convoluted school report card website, and another would have created summative star ratings for schools. Neither bill gained traction, making it hard for parents to understand what’s going well and where their schools need to improve—ultimately a significant barrier to ensuring parents have a seat at the table in conversations about school performance.
  • In good news, the Legislature took small steps to improve how we administer standards-based assessments. The education bill requires schools to test students as late as possible, giving educators and families a better snapshot of how individual students grew throughout the entire year. But the bill left out critical proposals to ensure timely reporting of results back to educators and families.
  • In better news and thanks to the organizing of communities across the state, attempts to repeal the disaggregation of student data by race and ethnicity failed. This means Minnesota schools will move forward in collecting and reporting out student achievement in more nuanced, actionable ways.
TEACHERS OF COLOR

We cannot adequately address race-based achievement gaps without addressing teacher quality and, integral to that, teacher diversity. Both the House and the Senate made increasing the number of teachers of color a top priority for the year, albeit with very different approaches. While the House focused on robust investments in current programs targeted to assist teachers of color, the Senate made small investments in new and innovative programs to recruit new teachers of color. In the end, the two bodies agreed on a $1.5 million investment in mentoring and retention grants—unfortunately not likely significant or visionary enough to truly move the needle.

ALTERNATIVE TEACHER PREPARATION

This year, Minnesota approved its first-ever alternative teacher preparation programs. Previously, all programs have operated through institutes of higher ed, leaving little room for innovation on how to train teachers. Because of recent legislative advancements, Minnesota now allows alternative preparation programs that are designed to fill teacher shortages, increase teacher diversity, and redesign teacher preparation centered on student achievement, employee mentorship, and teacher residency. The Senate pushed to renew the grant fund that helped seed these programs and attract new ones. Unfortunately, the House teacher preparation investments focused squarely on higher ed programs and, at the end of the day, alternative preparation landed on the cutting room floor.

DISMISSALS

Students need to stay in class to learn, but too many schools are pushing students out by defaulting too quickly to suspensions and expulsions. In response, the House proposed language to require schools to attempt non-exclusionary discipline for nonviolent behaviors first. They also sought to end suspensions and expulsions for three- and four-year-olds. Despite a track record of bi-partisan interest in school discipline reform over the past several years, the House proposals failed. Except for a provision that prohibits schools from punishing students for using sunscreen, Minnesota goes yet another year with no progress on the critical school dismissal issue.

SCHOOL CHOICE

While most people support the idea that families deserve the right to choose the best school for their kids, school choice remains a hot button issue at the Capitol. This year, the Senate re-introduced a proposal to create a tax credit scholarship program, whereby the state would institute new tax policy to establish a scholarship-assistance fund for low-income families to attend independent schools. Though a top tax priority for the Senate, it faced strong opposition from the House and Governor and ultimately failed.

DYSLEXIA

Students with dyslexia too often go undiagnosed and without the supports they need to succeed. Over the past few years, legislators have been working to advance policy solutions and this year passed two new critical requirements. Minnesota schools will now be required to screen K-2 students who are not reading at grade level for characteristics of dyslexia—and older students in some cases as well. Teacher preparation programs will also be required to train future educators on signs of dyslexia and to teach evidence-based reading instruction practices.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Unfortunately, the hype around the 2019 legislative session was more newsworthy than the education bill to come out of it. In the end, per-pupil funding increases went up at about the rate of inflation; there were no draconian cuts, no bold policies, and only modest investments in new programs. On the upside, the Legislature backed off of some harmful policies that would have been detrimental to all students. That said, the Legislature also avoided making needed student-centered improvements to our public education system. Minnesota’s students need transformational change. Bold ideas grounded in improving outcomes can move the needle, and that was not the direction of the 2019 session.