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Education finance bill offers bold reforms

Published (3/25/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius testifies before the House Education Finance Committee March 21 on the possible effects of the committee’s omnibus bill saying, “This bill creates winners and losers by capping special education revenue; eliminating integration aid; and increasing property taxes in cities of the first class.“ (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)A new majority caucus is approaching education reform boldly. The omnibus education finance bill proposes sweeping changes to longstanding funding categories that favor the urban districts, to provide new revenue for small districts and charter schools, and set up strict policies on teacher evaluation and limits to their tenure and bargaining rights.

HF934, sponsored by Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), was approved March 22 by the House Education Finance Committee, March 23 by the House Taxes Committee and 15-11 March 24 by the House Ways and Means Committee. Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) sponsors the companion, SF1030, scheduled to be heard the Senate Taxes Committee

March 25.

Republican House members are eager to move ahead with reforms they say are overdue and that will make education spending more effective, especially to close the troubling differences in academic performance between white students, students of color and those in poverty.

“It addresses the reality that we’ve been spending a great deal of money in programs that have not shown any improvement of the achievement gap,” said Rep. Duane Quam (R-Byron).

His DFL counterparts agree with those broad goals but believe the bill ignores research-based policies, especially around teacher evaluation and student testing, and would dismantle painstaking work in those areas by policymakers in recent years.

“The bill confuses the volume of reform proposals with the quality of reform proposals,” said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls).

Integration revenue, which has been around in some form since 1987, is intended to promote school desegregation. Its purpose and funding uses have been unclear with little oversight, according to a 2005 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) said that until recently, the program has been abused to an “unconscionable” level without achieving its original intent.

Under the bill, the program would be eliminated and its $95 million repurposed as innovation revenue targeted to research-based methods to improve student achievement.

DFL members say the proposed changes are stacked against the high-need Minneapolis and St. Paul districts. There, the new innovation revenue would be funded through local levy only. Other districts would receive 70 percent aid and 30 percent levy equal to their 2011 integration revenue, except Duluth, which would be lowered to $129 per pupil.

Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) said that cut, combined with a proposed freeze on special education funding and a proposed voucher program that would only apply to first-class city districts, would have a domino effect on the cities’ schools and place an undue burden on their property taxpayers.

“I think that’s a very ugly dynamic in this bill. I hope we can improve it a lot before the end of session,” she said.

In a press release, the three black House members opposed the bill, saying the “unfair cuts would likely worsen the state’s achievement gap.”

“Instead of taking this opportunity to address the critical challenges facing many schools, this bill furthers inequities at the cost of our children,” said Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul).

Teacher evaluation assessed

Other black education advocates support the bill’s proposal to create a three-part teacher evaluation structure intended to establish teacher effectiveness on a scale and link outcomes, including student test scores, to pay and employment decisions.

“What we are asking is that we evaluate teachers — I don’t know any other industry where employees are not evaluated – and that that evaluation informs both the improvement within the class and staffing decisions,” said Sondra Samuels, chief executive officer of the Northside Achievement Zone, a North Minneapolis coalition of 60 organizations promoting education and family well-being.

Rep. Kathy Brynaert (DFL-Mankato) also supports comprehensive teacher evaluation, but said this proposal is a “sandcastle” built on a faulty foundation that would be difficult for school districts to actually use and for the Education Department to manage. “My greatest disappointment with this bill is that, particularly in education, what purports to be reform is not grounded in sound, broad-based and objective research.”

Garofalo remains optimistic the bill will result in bipartisan measures the governor will support by session’s end, and noted the House $14.16 billion target and the governor’s aren’t too far apart.

“Conversation and dialogue on education has been occurring and continues to take place with the governor’s office,” Garofalo said.

Discussions could include the bill’s other provisions, such as:

• prohibiting teachers’ right to strike and requirement they accept a qualified economic offer from a school district;

• creating a new small schools revenue component at a cost of $15.17 million for 2012-2013, and $47.68 million for 2014-2015, applied to charter schools or districts with fewer than 1,000 pupil units;

• funding extended-time revenue at

$6 million;

• increasing basic per-pupil general education revenue annually from $5,124 this year to $5,255 in 2014;

• funding a child care quality rating system and early education scholarship program for low-income families.

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