Education issues still contentious; legislators looking ahead to conference

/ 24 April 2013 / eunice

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, April 24, 2013 – Most weeks of the legislative session, policy advocates and lobbyists almost seem capable of divination. The best can predict, in astonishing detail, what upcoming twists a bill will face, who will accrue or spend political capital unkinking them and what the upshot will be come Friday.

Not this week. Even the Capitol’s most seasoned veterans are armed only with cups of dice, which they are rattling anxiously.

The House of Representatives Tuesday night approved a $550 million package of measures [PDF] including a general formula increase, universal all-day kindergarten and early-childhood education funding. The bill also includes a strategic plan for closing Minnesota’s achievement gap.

With the Senate slated to vote on a markedly different one as early as today, talk has already turned to speculation regarding the makeup of the conference committees that will shape the final legislation.

In both chambers, members of both parties were heard grumbling about unfunded mandates — even as they differed on how much revenue should be raised and how, and how it should be parceled out.

Late-brewing controversies

Two of the most contentious items have surfaced only in the last week. In the House, a comprehensive anti-bullying initiative long sought by the DFL majority arguably lost some of its reach when it was made optional for private schools.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis opposes the bill on several grounds, calling it “Orwellian” and insisting it will result in the creation of “re-education camps.” Backers counter that the $75 million a year parochial and other non-public schools receive in state pupil aid suggests otherwise.

Several years of heated back and forth notwithstanding, the Senate is likely to vote to postpone mandatory teacher evaluations slated to begin in the 2014-2015 school year by a year. The proposal was only bolstered by headlines Tuesday night of a second round of technical failures in the state’s mandatory testing system in as many weeks.

Educators and administrators in a number of states — including Maryland, Connecticut and Oklahoma — are asking for delays in the implementation in their respective evaluation laws.

The statewide teacher evaluation system has been a third rail in state politics for several years running. While some teachers’ performance is assessed regularly, in many places evaluators appear only when a tenured teacher has been singled out for discipline.

Frustrated by research that shows teacher effectiveness to have dramatic influence on student achievement, members of both parties have sought to require school districts to perform regular, system-wide performance reviews. At the same time, the Obama administration created incentives for states to create evaluations and base one third of the outcome on student test results.

Testing, educators countered, is a notoriously fraught arena. The tests used to assess student proficiency do not necessarily yield data about teacher performance, they warned. Nor does Minnesota assess all grades and all subjects, leaving unanswered big questions how many teachers are to be evaluated.

The 2011 compromise

In the compromise that ended the 2011 state shutdown, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton agreed to require annual evaluations incorporating student performance data. At the time, after looking at other states’ systems legislative staff estimated the cost of the evaluations to be $80 million-$100 million.

Districts were free to create their own systems so long as they met certain standards, or they could adopt a system the state would design. A task force appointed to hammer out the many, exceptionally complicated details tendered its report last fall.

Several districts are to pilot the model next year. In his budget request for the next biennium, Dayton asked for $22 million to fund the pilot.

A week ago, organizations representing Minnesota’s school administrators, board members and principals joined with the state’s largest teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, in asking legislators to delay implementation until the 2015-2016 school year.

Cost estimated at $290 million

Using figures from the House research staff, the groups put the cost of implementing the evaluations at $290 million. “Neither the House nor the Senate omnibus bill provides this level of additional revenue,” they wrote in a letter to lawmakers [PDF].

“But without funding, evaluation expenses will drain money from the education programs our students need and deserve. A year’s delay would give policymakers and stakeholders time to come up with a funding strategy.”

Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, Gary Amoroso said the request should not be interpreted as a step back. “The organizations have made it clear we embrace the concept of accountability,” he said Tuesday. “We want to do this right. We want to have a teacher evaluation system that truly assesses our teacher corps.”

So is the unfunded mandate $80 million or $290 million or something in between? Good question. The true cost of implementing a comprehensive evaluation system remains unknown.

Districts that participate in Q-Comp, the controversial merit-pay scheme created by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, are expected to divert some of its professional development funds to pay for the teacher continuing ed required under the new law.

Some, including Minneapolis Public Schools, have more extensive systems in place or coming on line. And the Minnesota Department of Education will be required to provide extensive technical support.

One complicating factor: Minnesota last year was granted a waiver from compliance with an outdated federal accountability law in exchange for a series of commitments that included rolling out a teacher evaluation system incorporating testing data statewide by 2014.

Whether the delay would prove problematic when Minnesota goes to renegotiate the waiver next year remains an open question. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s team has been characteristically vague, saying changes to waiver requests would merit review.

Lost on no one is the fact that Tom Dooher, who is seeking a third term as Education Minnesota president, faces a challenger Saturday and a membership that’s skeptical evaluations won’t be used to punish.

Well represented on the task force, the union has been supportive of its recommendations and had begun talking to affiliates and locals about how to incorporate the performance reviews into dealings with districts.

Report shows teacher support in survey

And there is evidence that teacher skepticism may not be the barrier that common wisdom holds it to be. According to a report released today by the education reform group MinnCAN, 90 percent of 400 teachers surveyed say aligned evaluations and professional development will help advance student learning.

The report also found that “the more familiar teachers are with Minnesota’s new teacher evaluation law the more strongly they tend to support it. Of those familiar, 50 percent had a ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ favorable reaction; 23 percent of those unfamiliar felt the same.”

In general terms, the educators surveyed favor evaluation by trained evaluators and a three-year professional review cycle, but 62 percent oppose incorporating student achievement into teacher evaluations.

Postponing the rollout of the evaluation system is likely to face stiff opposition among GOPers in both chambers and by many in the House, where Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, has long pushed for evaluations.

Private schools waived in House package

The House omnibus package passed Tuesday night was notable in part because an amendment made last week in the Ways and Means Committee stood. Private schools will not be required to comply with a sweeping anti-bullying effort.

The Archdiocese had urged parishioners to call for rejection of the original version of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which requires schools to take specific steps toward monitoring school climate and investigating reports of harassment.

story about its efforts appeared in this space Monday; a rebuttal by Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, appears in MinnPost’s Community Voices space today.

In its official publication, the Catholic Spirit, and communications to parishioners, the Archdiocese also linked the issue to same-sex marriage, which it has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking to ban.

“The redefinition of marriage should not be seen as a stand-alone act,” the Catholic Spirit explained. “It is the harbinger of broader social change aimed at creating gender and sexual ‘freedom’ and breaking down the supposedly repressive social norm of heterosexual monogamy. And it is accompanied by other significant pieces of legislation working their way through Minnesota’s Legislature that should be resisted just as vigorously as same-sex ‘marriage.’”

Specific language in the bill protecting students from religious harassment and recognizing their constitutional right to free religious speech hasn’t satisfied critics, who have warned that schools will be forced to “teach same-sex marriage.” Both the recognition of same-sex marriage and the Safe Schools legislation will protect select groups of individuals at the cost of the rights and safety of others, the Archodiocesan communications argue.

“If marriage is redefined, the coercion of silence will enter the legal sphere, where real penalties will befall those so-called ‘bigots’ who ‘discriminate’ by clinging to the traditional definition of marriage,” the Catholic Spirit said. “The schools are the ideal place to foster this new regime of ‘tolerance,’ and forcefully suppress any bad thoughts or ‘hate’ speech that may emerge.”

Proponents of the measure — which was based on the work of a task force appointed last year by Dayton — had argued that noncompliance should put private schools’ state pupil aid at risk.

For decades, Minnesota’s private schools have received some of the same state funds as public schools. Some $75 million a year, the revenue includes aids that follow students, not schools or districts.

Based on the February state revenue forecast, the transportation aid portion of state funds going to private schools in the next biennium will exceed $75 million. Pupil aid for services such as school nurses and counselors and textbooks will total $64 million.

In addition, private schools receive $350,000 in subsidies — one third the state total — for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programming each year. Federal funds for special education services are also available, as are family tuition tax credits. Finally, many non-public schools have property tax exemptions.

It’s unclear whether the church’s opposition will sway the Senate, which is expected to take up its omnibus education bill today. In either case, swift passage is expected. Lawmakers have said they want all of budget-related omnibus legislation out of conference committee and on the governor’s desk by the end of the month.

http://www.minnpost.com/learning-curve/2013/04/education-issues-still-contentious-legislators-looking-ahead-conference