May 13, 2020

Will Key COVID-19 Education Bill Pass Before Session Adjourns?

By Michelle Koffa

With under a week left of the regular legislative session, the Minnesota House and Senate are still working behind the scenes on an education bill in response to COVID-19. The DFL-led House and the Republican-led Senate haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but they’ve built consensus around several policy changes that will be essential to student success in the wake of COVID-19. In the final days of session, these provisions remain stuck in limbo due to a stalemate on the question of guaranteed pay for hourly workers.

Harmony Among Bills

Over the past two months, schools and families have had to rapidly adjust to distance learning, navigating many barriers along the way. Removing some of these barriers requires state and federal support, investment, and policy change. 

Both the Senate and House COVID-19 education proposals respond to school closures by providing greater flexibility to schools, students, teachers, and governing bodies like the Department of Education (MDE) and Minnesota’s teacher licensing agency PELSB. Many provisions in the bills are very similar, if not identical, showing signs of a joint legislative effort to pass emergency legislation for students and their families and educators. 

If passed before session adjourns, these bills will meet critical education needs: 

What’s the Controversy About?

Though these critical provisions are poised to advance, there has been one sticking point preventing the education bills from passing through the Legislature and moving to the Governor’s desk. Ensuring ongoing pay for hourly school workers and contracted vendors, like bus drivers and food service employees, has been a top priority for House Democrats. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have voiced concerns about schools needing flexibility with their budgets as they respond to COVID-19 and prepare for a likely recession. The Senate argued that without providing schools additional funding, legislative mandates on school budgets could put schools into financial crisis sooner, resulting in layoffs and other budget cuts. 

What’s Next?

With House Democrats and Senate Republicans both standing firm, we find ourselves at an impasse. 

While this is not unfamiliar territory for legislative negotiations, the stakes for schools and students are high. Districts have been scrambling to connect with the nearly 17% of Minnesota students who don’t have internet access. And districts could be scrambling again soon, with nearly 25% of Minnesota’s teachers at risk of losing their licenses at the end of June if they’re not granted a renewal extension. Students, educators, and families need immediate support and flexibility—currently provided, in part, in both COVID-19 education bills. 

We all anxiously await what compromise, if any, the Legislature will make before it ends on May 18.