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House passes omnibus education bill with limited funding, controversial policy

Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, responds to a question from Rep. Lyndon Carlson, Sr., foreground, during April 25 floor debate of the omnibus education bill. Photo by Andrew VonBank

The first of three supplemental omnibus bills has passed the House and is headed to the Senate.

An omnibus education bill with $56 million in additional funding for E-12 education and no funding for higher education passed the House Monday, 84-46. Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud) sponsors HF2749, which he said will also serve as the overarching supplemental budget bill for the House.

With zero budget targets for E-12 and higher education, most of the bill’s funding comes from a provision allowing school districts to repay and refinance high-interest state “maximum effort” loans. The funding targets “critical needs” of school districts, including $16.8 million to address teacher shortages, said Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), who chairs the House Education Finance Committee.

Despite the bill’s funding for teacher workforce development, rural broadband and a variety of other programs, House leadership’s zero targets for education drew strong criticism by DFLers — as did several of the bill’s policy provisions.

An amendment by Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) to provide $113 million to expand state student grants and freeze tuition at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system was ruled out of order, given the budget targets. The budget targets are the problem, Hortman said.

House Floor session 4/25/216

“We could adopt budget targets that put Minnesota’s students and families ahead of all other priorities,” she said. “Right now we’re giving zero to students with high student debt.”

Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul) withdrew an amendment to establish the “MinneK” voluntary prekindergarten program, one of the governor’s top education priorities this session.

“The Democrat priorities seem to be the same as they always have – tax and spend,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers). “Our priority this year is simple. We fully funded government last year and the surplus should not go toward additional government spending.”

The education bill is typically the defining bill of the Legislature and should be greeted with the excited energy of a first day of school, said House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls), but this bill shows “zero foresight for the future.”

“Zero energy comes with a zero budget target,” he said. “We could be investing in our future, we could be investing in our kids. … It’s the wrong direction for Minnesota, members.”

In a non-budget year and given the bill’s numerous provisions from DFLers and the governor, Loon said she doesn’t understand the criticism that the bill does nothing.

“Members, we are not doing nothing,” Loon said. “This bill does a lot for students, it does a lot to fill in some extra things that we’d like to help do.”

 

Controversial policy provisions remain

Several policy provisions that were hotly debated in committee also generated debate on the House floor, including a provision requiring additional oversight of fetal tissue research at the University of Minnesota.

The bill includes a controversial policy provision that would prohibit statewide student surveys about substance abuse, sexual activities and other behaviors, effectively ending the Minnesota Student Survey, which parents may current opt their children out of. An amendment offered by Rep. JoAnn Ward (DFL-Woodbury) to remove the provision failed 79-52.

Data collected by the survey are crucial in identifying and addressing problems facing students, Ward said. “Our vulnerable children are less vulnerable if we have the information on how to help them.”

The questions are too “personal in nature,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), who chairs the House Education Innovation Policy Committee.

“The student survey is intrusive, it is using our school children to collect data that is not the business of our public school system or our charter school system,” she said.

Rep. Eric Lucero (R-Dayton) offered examples of “intrusive questions” asking ninth graders about sexual activity, pregnancy and drug use that could introduce students to topics.

Multiple DFLers spoke in support of the amendment, offering examples of how survey data was used to help students in their districts.

“We should not turn our backs on information that could help us better protect our kids,” said Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul).

 

Notable amendments adopted would do the following:

  • require school boards to seek public testimony before voting on property tax increases;
  • appropriate an additional $1 million for teacher loan forgiveness programs;
  • require that one hour of suicide prevention training be included among continuing education hours required for teacher license renewal;
  • expand eligibility for a pilot program offering student loan counseling; and
  • make teacher diversity a more integral part of state education policy language.

 

Appropriations in the bill include:

  • $7.7 million to expand equity funding to districts outside the metro area to reduce per-pupil funding disparities;
  • $7 million for broadband expansion grants;
  • $6 million for staff training in intermediate school districts serving students with disabilities;
  • $5 million for school-linked mental health grants;
  • $4.5 million for a “future teachers” grant program for students intending to teach in high-need areas;
  • $2.75 million to implement the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program in districts to promote “positive school culture";
  • $2 million for the Collaborative Urban Educator program;
  • $1.8 million for the Parent Aware early learning quality rating system;
  • $1.5 million for the Reading Corps tutoring program;
  • $1.5 million for student mentoring partnerships through the Sanneh Foundation;
  • $1.5 million for the Girls in Action mentoring program grants;
  • $1.5 million for “grow your own” teacher residency pilot program; and
  • $2.2 million for loan forgiveness for teachers who work in shortage areas.

 

Policy provisions in the bill would do the following:

  • establish “college-ready” benchmark scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and prevent MnSCU institutions from placing students who meet benchmarks in remedial classes;
  • require the Education Department to develop a data security plan;
  • reallocate some University of Minnesota funds to establish a program at the Rochester campus for students recovering from addictions;
  • establish study groups to delve into student discipline and teacher licensure;
  • grant teachers the authority to remove students from their classrooms for misconduct; and
  • incorporate some teacher licensing system reforms recommended by the legislative auditor, including granting one-year professional teaching license for candidates who meet all licensure requirements except skills exams.

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