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Omnibus education policy bill clears first hurdle in House

Rep. Sondra Erickson chairs the House Education Innovation Policy Committee March 19 as the omnibus education policy bill is discussed. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Expanding the pool of teacher applicants to stem the tide of a workforce shortage affecting many school districts and helping students get the most and best use out of their class time are two major themes in the omnibus education policy bill that has cleared its first hurdle in the House.

On a divided voice-vote Thursday, the House Education Innovation Policy Committee approved HF1591, which contains many of the majority’s top education priorities. Sponsored by Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), the bill’s next stop is the House Education Finance Committee. Its companion, SF1495, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood), awaits action by the Senate Education Committee.

The bill would make several reforms to the teacher licensure process for out-of-state applicants, including allowing alternative pathways to licensure and requiring the Board of Teaching to enter into interstate agreements with neighboring states. It also includes a controversial measure that would allow school districts to consider performance along with seniority in the event of teacher layoffs. Those proposals were also contained in HF2, which passed on the House Floor earlier this month, but has stalled in the Senate.

DFLers expressed displeasure with inclusion of those provisions, which Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) characterized as an otherwise “technically sound” omnibus education bill.

“There are still elements in this bill that members, particularly in the minority caucus, find problematic,” said Mariani, who unsuccessfully offered an amendment that would have stripped those provisions from the bill.

Erickson, the committee chair, said teacher licensure reforms would encourage a larger pool of qualified applicants and much needed diversity in the workforce across school. She also defended the seniority-only repeal to teacher layoff structure as innovative move for the state to attract and retain the highest quality teachers.

“We believe we have moved at this time to a place whereby we want to honor teacher performance as well as seniority,” Erickson said.

Another measure would allow school districts to hire non-licensed “community experts” when licensed teachers are not available.

Four-day school week proposal included

Many of the provisions within the bill contain elements of several bills the committee heard in recent weeks, one of those being a measure that would give school districts operating on four-day weeks the ability to continue the programs without approval from the Department of Education.

Eight school districts in Greater Minnesota have schools that operate on four-day weekly class schedules.

Under current law those school districts must receive approval from the department to engage in a “flexible learning calendar.” Last year, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius asked those districts to return to five-day school weeks by the 2015-16 academic calendar.

The bill also includes language that mostly follows recommendations from a governor-appointed test reduction advisory group to reduce the number of standardized tests students must take in order to graduate.

But the omnibus bill would go a step further and return the ACT – a college entrance exam – to an optional test students can take in 11th or 12th grade. A 2013 law requires students take the exam before they graduate.

Some other provisions that have received bipartisan that are contained in the bill would aim to help streamline the curricular experience for students as they begin developing for postsecondary goals. Those proposals include measures that would:

  • allow students to count agricultural science classes as an elective science credit and computer science courses as a math credit; and
  • allow ninth and 10th graders who demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language to take concurrent enrollment courses that would award college credit in foreign language courses normally offered to 11th and 12th graders.

Other provisions in the bill include:

  • expansion for the early learning scholarship eligibility to parents under age 21 who are working toward a college degree and prioritization for some children on waiting list who experience homelessness, are in foster care or have other life-challenging circumstances;
  • reform of a home visiting program to incorporate a priority focus on reaching children with high needs at as early an age as possible;
  • creation of a Department of Education working group to study the possible expansion of making swimming instruction available at all public schools;
  • allow the Board of Teaching to suspend, revoke or deny teaching licenses to individuals convicted of serious crimes; and
  • allowing charter schools to give preference for enrollment to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, based on family income status.

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