Capitol roundup — the Ides of March edition

/ 16 March 2012 / jennifer

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, March 16, 2012 –

Did you remember yesterday to observe the Ides of March? No?

Chances are your state lawmaker did.

The day may have dawned intrigue-free enough, but Learning Curve’s inbox quickly filled up with bits of legislative intrigue, and one quiet tale of victory by an engaged citizen.

Let’s deal with the intrigue first. Wednesday, the state House Education Finance Committee took a small but targeted whack at Minnesota’s carefully constructed high-quality early-childhood education ratings system. You know, the one that began last year’s legislative session as a bipartisan shoo-in, only to die a late-March death at the hands of GOP leaders, who had been persuaded to see it as the first step toward a nanny state.

As part of last July’s shutdown-ending compromise between lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton, the Legislature appropriated $4 million in early-ed scholarships for low-income families but not for the ratings system that would have directed them to top-notch, gap-closing programs.

Observers were puzzled by Dayton’s decision to preserve such a small amount of funding—until August, when he turned around and instituted the ratings system administratively.

Early-ed supporters were even more delighted in December when the Obama Administration recognized the program and the other early-ed initiatives the state pressed on with as groundbreaking by granting Minnesota some $45 million in Race to the Top grants.

With Wednesday’s voice vote perceived to have gone along party lines, the House committee voted to de-link the $4 million in scholarship funding from the ratings system, which is called Parent Aware, and to redirect $500,000 of it to a west metro area program providing home visits to families.

Interestingly, Karen Effrem, the religious right activist with ties to Michele Bachmann who lobbied against the ratings system last year, testified in favor of the program — even though one of its west metro sponsors is a DFLer.

Quotes, via the Capitol’s ever-invaluable Session Daily:

Committee Chair Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington): “If the department [of Education] is of the opinion that they can get out the truck and drive over us on this issue, they are sadly mistaken and in a bad place to be.”

Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville): “I just violently oppose taking this [delinking] tactic. Violently. … My whole stomach churns to think about us taking this sort of a tactic.”

To be clear: The scholarships will still be available to approximately 1 percent of eligible kids, but the accountability measures — which former Gov. Tim Pawlenty started calling for nine years ago and the business community paid to design, pilot and evaluate — will not apply.

Death by a thousand cuts? Discuss among yourselves.

Effrem, head of Education Liberty Watch, was also heard on a proposal to require the state DoE to secure legislative approval to enact education standards and benchmarks, the specific skills and items of information students are to be taught and assessed on.

This one’s likely to sound too much like inside baseball to most folks; who cares how many members of the Taft administration a high-schooler should be able to name, right?

Wrong. Standards are a perennial pot of controversy between mainstream educators, who generally think they ought to include not just long division but things like the theory of evolution and the history of slavery, and those whose worldview leans another direction.

A principal evaluation bill was passed out of committee early in the week only to be met with eerie silence. Among other things, the measure would pin 35 percent of a principal’s performance to student outcomes as their school.

Principals, who note that the requisite assessment tools neither exist nor enjoy funding, are said to be displeased that the legislation is advancing. Teachers, who have raised remarkably similar qualms about their evaluation mandate, passed last year and being refined right now, are probably enjoying a justifiable moment of schadenfreude.

The promised nugget of good news: Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, has been awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA).

A member of Parents United for eight years, Cecconi and her crew have served, invaluably, as a nonpartisan voice for public-school families in the legislative process. Possessed of an ability to digest and analyze just about any impenetrable language generated by the revisor of dtatutes, she spends each session asking inconvenient questions about the fine print — such as “Will this benefit students?”

Sayeth Craig Roen, chair of the group’s board: “If you say lobbyist to her, she’ll recoil. She’s not paid by anyone to take any particular position.”

Rather, as he described it, Cecconi, who has a background in education, started out going from one Capitol office to another in search of answers: “Explain to us parents why this makes sense.” She has morphed, happily, into someone who can now say, “This makes no sense.”

Cecconi’s quick to share her gleanings with reporters and — yes, I have said this before, but so what? It’s still true — Parents United’s website is packed with original source documents and is the go-to source for anyone who is concerned that his or her lawmaker is throwing a kid under the bus, not entirely sure how and looking for a voice in the process nonetheless.

Lawmakers in both caucuses quail.

http://www.minnpost.com/learning-curve/2012/03/capitol-roundup-%E2%80%94-ides-march-edition