Talking Education: Praise, perspective on Legislature

Praise and perspective – that’s what more than 30 Minnesota education leaders offered last week when asked about the 2013 Minnesota Legislature’s decisions on K-12 education.

That includes superintendents Keith Lester, Brooklyn Center, and Aldo Sicoli, Robbinsdale; and Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

They agreed in most areas and raised a few concerns.

Asked for his brief summary of the Legislature’s impact, Sicoli began by praising funding for all-day kindergarten.

“Although we have some space challenges, we will provide all-day kindergarten for all who want it in the fall of 2014,” he said.

“We may need to move some other programs out of our elementary schools and determine whether and how we would provide space for them.

“I am also glad that integration revenue was restored because this goes to things that help academic achievement in our district.”

Funding for all-day kindergarten, starting fall 2014 was the most praised aspect of the bill among the district and charter public school educators contacted.

Lester wrote, “The revenue for all-day K is very beneficial for us. We have been footing the bill for all-day K and not charging parents.”

Lester also praised “the additional revenue on the formula, the increased integration aid and the additional amount in the compensatory pilot.

“With the new revenue, there is no question that we will get out of statutory operating debt.”

While praising the law overall, several educators suggested future priorities.

Nancy Rajanen, Waconia superintendent, believes  the 2014 Legislature must address the enormous cost of the 2012 law regarding teacher evaluation.

“Quality evaluation of teachers need to be a priority, but cannot be an unfunded mandate.”

Cambridge Superintendent Bruce Novak also appreciates increased funding, but noted, “This is not even close to what the cost of special education is across the state.”

In a controversial decision, legislators stopped requiring that students pass reading, writing and math tests before high school graduation.

Instead, students will take tests showing how prepared they are for some form of two or four year college and various careers.

Several educators agreed. Sicoli wrote, “It was wise to replace the GRAD (Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma) assessments with measures that give an indication of college and career readiness; it was a pleasure to serve on the Assessments and Accountability Task Force.”

However, Weaver strongly disagreed with this decision.

In a letter to legislators he shared with me, Weaver wrote that the Legislature did “make some positive changes for Minnesota students, such as expansion of Parent Aware early education scholarships, goals for student achievement by 2027 and a transition to high school exams that indicate student readiness for post-secondary education.”

However, Weaver believes that the Legislature took “one step forward with the new high school exams, but three steps back with the elimination of basic expectations for student performance on state exams.”

Under the new system, students who perform at the bottom levels in reading, writing and math on the exams can still graduate with a high school diploma.

Current state expectations for student performance on reading and writing high school exams … have led to significant increases in the percent of students of color meeting state standards, graduating from high school and lowering drop-out rates.”

Because graduation requirements are so important, I’ll be writing more about this in a future column.

It’s impossible to briefly yet fully describe a law that is more than 200 pages long.

But despite some disagreements, educators and business people agreed that this year’s Legislature expanded opportunities, especially for young children in important ways.

Editor’s note: Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org

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