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Changes in education

Published (4/1/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Rep. Pat Garofalo, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, leans against a column at the back of the House Chamber while listening to a lengthy debate on an amendment to the voucher section of the proposed omnibus education finance bill March 29. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)At a press conference before the House was scheduled to take up its omnibus education finance bill, HF934, its sponsor, Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) recalled a point he made late last session.

“Change is coming and you can’t stop it,” he said. “Today, change is here.”

It arrived at about 2:30 a.m. March 30, when the House approved the bill 68-59. The Senate laid a companion on the table, but approved a different omnibus education bill, SF1030, sponsored by Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) March 31, 36-25, then laid it on the table.

The bill would increase the basic revenue formula by $131 per pupil through 2014; add back $6 million of $26 million in extended-time revenue cut in 2003; and create a new small schools revenue category for charter schools and districts with 1,000 or fewer pupils. It would cap, however, other revenue, including compensatory, and special education revenue, and cut integration revenue, all especially important to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

Proposed policy changes include a school grading system and a teacher evaluation framework that put heavy emphasis on student test scores as a measure of teacher, school and district accountability; and performance-based pay and five-year renewable tenure for teachers.

“This bill really is the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville). “The good part was that we didn’t cut K-12 education as much as people expected.” The bad and the ugly are reflected in a slew of DFL amendments, most of which weren’t successful.

Nearly three hours of debate focused on a proposed “opportunity scholarship” program sponsored by Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine) that would fund some low-income students in low-performing schools in cities of the first class to attend nonpublic schools. DFL members questioned the proposal’s constitutionality, lack of proven effectiveness in closing the achievement gap and why it was limited to cities of the first class.

“No matter what you call it, it’s a school voucher program,” said Rep Tom Tillberry (DFL-Fridley), who unsuccessfully offered an amendment to delete the provision.

Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) said the state constitution prohibits public money being “appropriated or used” for sectarian schools, which many eligible students would be likely to choose. “That’s not some liberal doctrine; that is our Minnesota constitution … that we all in this body took an oath to uphold.”

Garofalo and Woodard said the proposal is a pilot, focused on the largest cities because that’s where the achievement gap is the biggest problem.

“When you do this, it looks like you’re targeting the cities again. It looks a little bit like the LGA cuts,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley). He unsuccessfully offered an amendment to strike the application only to those cities.

“Our parents and our community have grown a little weary of people who don’t live in our community, who want us to be the proving ground and the experimental ground for their latest ideas and brainstorms,” said Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL-Mpls).

“Instead of picking on cities of the first class, I would say this is a benefit we’re providing to the families who can have a choice,” Woodard said.

Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) said the proposal is “bad public policy” that could drain public dollars from high-need city students, and essentially create “two Minnesotas.”

“Everyone talks about the state fair as the ‘Great Minnesota Get-Together.’ No. The true great Minnesota get-together is our public K-12 system. It’s where we come together as a people. We’re going down the slippery slope of breaking apart that great Minnesota get-together.”

Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul) offered an amendment that would impose a sunset date and require a report on the demographics and academic performance of students who take the enrollment option, compared with similar public school students. The report portion was adopted, but not the sunset date.

Members on both sides sought further amendments.

Rep. Kathy Brynaert (DFL-Mankato) unsuccessfully proposed to modify a performance management system for teacher evaluation, sponsored by Rep. Branden Petersen (R-Andover). She said it counts students’ Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test scores too heavily in the teacher appraisal, given that those tests are not designed to be related to individual teachers’ effectiveness.

“Some of the best assessment experts in the state are very concerned about some of the metrics that are presented in this bill,” Brynaert said. “Let’s use the research and expertise of our best minds in this field so we can truly stay focused on our students and not our own bureaucratic creations.”

Petersen said Brynaert’s position “takes an overly cautious approach to teacher evaluation.”

Integration revenue would be eliminated and repurposed as innovation revenue. The integration revenue program has been criticized as unfocused, but many districts rely on the funds to support magnet schools and inter-district collaborations intended to promote racial diversity. Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) successfully offered an amendment that would preserve the integration rule, though not the dedicated funding.

A $1.75 million statewide expansion of the child care rating system Parent Aware, that sponsor Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) called “a Consumer Reports for parents,” was removed from the bill with a successful amendment offered by Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan).

“It sets up a whole new level of government meant to oversee our preschool programs,” he said. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to remove $10 million proposed for early childhood education scholarships, which he proposed to maintain as cash for potential flood relief efforts.

Garofalo let others do most of the talking during the six-hour session, but concluded on an optimistic note.

“Clearly anything that’s going to become law is going to require the support of a DFL governor and a Republican Legislature. There’s a lot of great reform in this bill. I ask you to put kids first, no excuses, no exceptions.”

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