2018 MN Legislative Session: Four of the Biggest Education Policy Topics So Far

April 3, 2018 • Krista Kaput

While the legislature takes a break this week to observe Easter and Passover, we wanted to provide an overview of some of the most talked about education policy topics, so far, from the 2018 Minnesota legislative session. Even though it’s not a budget year, Governor Dayton’s last session is shaping up to be filled with important and contentious discussions. From school safety to “Academic Balance,” the education policy topics discussed at the Capitol have touched on issues that are relevant in the current national and state political climate.

This post will discuss four education policy issues that have garnered a lot of attention and we recommend you keep an eye on.

Policy #1: School Discipline

On March 6, there was a hearing in the Senate’s E-12 Policy Committee on legislation relating to non-exclusionary disciplinary policies and practices (SF 2920). In his opening remarks Committee Chair, Senator Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake), said, “We’re all here because we want our students to learn, all of our students. And, they won’t learn if they are not in the classroom. And so what we want to do is try to encourage school boards and local districts to adopt non-exclusionary discipline policies.”

Specifically, the legislation:

  • Provides a definition for non-exclusionary disciplinary policies and practices.
  • Encourages school officials to use non-exclusionary discipline policies and practices before they begin dismissal proceedings.
  • Requires parents be notified if their child is removed by a school resource officer, police officer, or otherwise removed from class, suspended, or expelled.
  • Requires school officials to provide coursework and work closely with suspended pupils, and also grant them full credit for work they completed during their suspension.

Lauren Gilliam, a parent of three children spoke in support of bill: “As a parent, I am thankful for provisions that would foster better communication and partnerships between schools and families…Right now, communication with families is too often broken.” Lars Lindqvist, a teacher at North High School in Minneapolis, also spoke in support of the bill, “I believe we must do better with our students to keep them in our schools through supporting students and restoring relationships instead of pushing them out, particularly for minor, subjective offenses. This bill is a step in the right direction towards doing better for our students.”

Grace Keliher, representative for the Minnesota School Boards Association, asked the Committee to “proceed carefully with any changes to this part of the law. There is a balance between students’ individual rights and the rights of all of the other students to a positive and productive public education, which needs to be maintained.”

Related to this bill, the topic of school discipline has also gained a lot of traction in the past few months in large part due to action the Minnesota Department of Human Rights took last fall when they delivered letters to 43 district and charter schools, informing them that they were under investigation for violating the state Human Rights Act because of significant disparities in their student discipline data.

Policy #2: Five-Star Academic Achievement Rating System

On March 13, there was a hearing in the Senate’s E-12 Policy Committee on legislation relating to an Academic Achievement Rating System (SF 2816). Senator Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) explained that the bill is “about data that already exists and using that data to create information that is meaningful, understandable, and transparent.”

The bill requires that the Commissioner assign each school and district a star rating—one star for the lowest performing schools and districts and five stars for the highest performing schools and districts—based on measures like student proficiency rates in reading and mathematics, achievement gap scores, and four-year graduation rates. The specific components of the rating systems would depend on whether the Commissioner is assigning a rating to an elementary school, high school, or district.

Daniel Sellers, Executive Director of EdAllies, provided testimony in support of the bill, noting that even though Minnesota collects a lot of data around student, school, and district performance, it is often hard to find or use, which makes it hard for families to find out if their child’s needs are being met. Amy Guidera, President and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign was also in support of the bill, “The most important role that data can play in education is a tool of empowerment and a tool of transparency. And that is what this bill is about.”

On the other side, Adosh Unni, the Director of Government Relations for the Minnesota Department of Education, acknowledged that the current Minnesota Report Card is hard to navigate and should be improved. He noted, however, that “while seeking to improve on this current data tool we want to avoid the pitfall of creating something that is maybe too simplistic and that is relying on just one or two scores and doesn’t give parents the necessary context for a school’s performance.” Dale Anderson, a Shakopee Public School teacher on leave who is serving as the President of the Shakopee Education Association, also provided testimony against the bill arguing that encapsulating an entire school’s performance on the basis of a single day of testing is not an effective measure of a student’s strengths and abilities.

Related, the omnibus bill in the House (HF 3315) includes the Five-Star Academic Achievement Rating System.

Policy #3: School Safety

On March 7, Governor Dayton proposed the Safe and Secure School Act, which would provide $15.9 million, or an increase of $18 per student, for the purpose of enhancing “safety for students, teachers, parents, and staff at schools throughout Minnesota.” Specifically, some highlights of the proposal are that it:

  • Provides an additional $5 million in school-based grant monies for mental health services to students who need additional support.
  • Provides additional revenue for building improvements like secured entrances, bulletproof glass, or other classroom security measures.
  • Directs district and charter schools to ensure expelled students are progressing with their alternative educations and remain eligible for school-based mental health grants until they enroll in a new district.
  • Directs district and charter schools to improve data sharing with one another about expelled students.

On March 29, House Republicans announced their School Safety Package which calls for $50 million in order to make schools safer from violence. Some of the things the plan calls for are:

  • School resource officers, student support personnel, and other school security programs to be funded through increased Safe Schools revenue.
  • School facility security upgrades, and expanded use of Facility Maintenance revenue for security projects, including emergency communications systems.
  • School-linked mental health programming.
  • Suicide prevention training for teachers so they can learn how to engage and assist students experiencing mental distress.
  • School-based threat assessment teams established to assess, intervene, and report threats facing students, teachers, and staff.

Importantly, this plan significantly overlaps with Governor Dayton’s proposal, which suggests that an agreement is possible.

Policy #4: Academic Balance Policy

On March 8, Senator Nelson proposed legislation (SF 2487) that would require all districts and charter schools to develop “Academic Balance Policies” that would:

  • Prohibit school employees from requiring students or other school employees to express social or political viewpoints for the purposes of credit, extracurricular participation, or employment.
  • Require schools to provide a learning environment, curriculum, and instruction with access to a broad range of serious opinions.
  • Require students to be assessed on the basis of “reasoned answers” and “appropriate knowledge of the subjects.”
  • Require caution from classroom teachers when expressing personal views in the classroom.

In her opening remarks, Senator Nelson said, “We know how important it is in all of our education institutions that all ideas be respected, valued, free speech and that is part of what we are looking at in this bill…it’s very important that our K-12 systems are very much focused on education, requirements for our students, and that anything that is not a scientific fact be presented in a balanced way.”

Testimony in support of the bill was provided by Katherine Kersten, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, members of Edina’s Young Conservatives Club, and an Edina parent. One of the Edina students, Jazmine Edmond, said that she had seen “teachers being openly aggressive to students, just because they may disagree with their views.”

There were several teachers, education advocates, and Edina students who opposed the bill. David Aron, a staff attorney for Education Minnesota, said that they strongly oppose the bill because it is “Unnecessary, it is unworkable, and it is very likely unconstitutional.” In particular, he said the bill is not necessary because teachers are already required to observe civil rights laws like the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Josh Crosson, Senior Policy Director at EdAllies, acknowledged the Edina students’ experiences and said that “Bullying of any type is completely uncalled for.” He also noted the states’ persistent and stagnant achievement gaps, particularly between students of color and their white peers, asserting “The disparities that exist in our education system are, frankly, race based.”

Education Evolving will continue to follow and report on relevant education policy topics throughout the 2018 legislative session.

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