The state of education policy as Minnesota heads back to school

September 18, 2020 • Danyika Leonard

A historic fourth special session came and went last week with some drama as Governor Walz extended his peacetime emergency powers. But while previous special sessions opened a small window for unfinished education business, this session concluded with no policy action at the same time as Minnesota students and teachers begin an uncertain new school year.

Below we review Minnesota’s education policy landscape at this turn of the season: Namely, what came of our four special legislative sessions and where state education agencies focused their work in the summer of Covid.

Education bill one of few to pass during first special session

There were high hopes for Minnesota’s first special session, which lasted eight days in June. Policy issues like the bonding bill, oversight of the federal CARES Act, and police reform were expected to be top of mind for Minnesota lawmakers. And there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for other key bills that would have been otherwise benched until next year.

One notable education policy accomplishment of this session was the passage of a bipartisan E-12 Policy Provisions bill (HF 33/SF 26).

Bill highlights include:

  • Mental illness training: PELSB must add mental illness training for both Tier 1 and Tier 2 teacher licensure renewals. Currently, Tier 3 and Tier 4 teachers looking to renew their licensure are required to get training on mental health topics, like suicide prevention best practices, identifying signs of early-onset mental illness, and trauma. This change will require teachers at all tier levels to undergo training.
  • Vaping Awareness & Prevention Act: Mandates vaping education for grades 6-8 and schools to offer support to increase awareness. This bill also mandates that the Commissioner of Education must include questions regarding both tobacco use and vaping in the Minnesota student survey.
  • No more disciplinary preschool dismissals: Children in pre-K programs or schools may not be expelled or excluded due to a disciplinary action. For other disciplinary actions, providers must make meaningful efforts, such as engaging with parents, making a family support services referral, or requesting an evaluation for an individualized education plan, or IEP.
  • Dyslexia screenings: Mandates schools to provide annual reports on dyslexia screenings.
  • School administered medications: A parent must notify the school if the student’s medication is considered a controlled substance. This includes naming who is authorized to to dispose of the medication.

Limited action in subsequent special sessions

The House and Senate failed to come to an agreement on the bonding bill before adjournment of the second special session in July. However, they did manage to pass a police reform bill. There were no significant education provisions passed.

When Governor Walz called a third special session in August, many wondered if there was a limit on the number of additional special sessions he could convene. To be clear, there technically isn’t a limit. The governor can call a special session at any time on ‘extraordinary occasions,’ like the state’s current peacetime emergency, which the governor extended most recently to October 12.

Safe Learning Plan

On July 30, pursuant to that peacetime emergency, Walz issued an executive order authorizing Minnesota’s education commissioner to mandate school districts and charter schools to provide a safety plan for the 2020-21 academic year. On August 12, the Senate E-12 policy committee held a hearing where Education Deputy Commissioner Mueller presented the state’s data-driven Safe Learning Plan.

The plan is intended to ensure each student receives an equitable education and has equal access to learning and instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • The plan largely leaves school options up to each individual district to do hybrid, in-person or distance learning instruction, but mandates that all schools must offer a distance learning component.
  • Mueller also discussed MN’s request for $256 million in federal funds to undergird schools’ Covid response, including testing supplies and operation costs.

School administrators have since created plans and back-up plans keeping in mind a number of factors, like budget restraints, educator and parent feedback, and local Covid-19 transmission rates. Parents and educators alike have expressed concerns about reopening plans. The Anoka-Hennepin Teachers of Color Coalition released an open letter to their superintendent and school board, expressing concerns about equity and the safety of resuming in-person instruction citing disproportionately higher Covid-19 rates for people of color.

Education policy outside the legislature

Much of EE’s policy advocacy work takes place outside the realm of Minnesota’s part-time legislature, at state agencies tasked with implementing education policy—the Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

PELSB’s summer work included issuing guidance to support teacher preparation providers during the Covid-19 pandemic, releasing their 2020 teacher preparation provider data summary report, and extending teacher licensure renewal dates six months (with some exceptions for teachers looking to teach in a different school or content area).

After reviewing over 200 applications, MDE recently announced the 2020-21 K-12 social studies committee members. The group comprises 41 members from various schools, organizations, and communities. They are tasked with reviewing the current 2011 social studies standards, gathering feedback and proposing new standards. A number of the committee members are looking to shift the standards away from a Euro-centric lens, and include diverse perspectives and cultural lenses.

To every season, turn, turn, turn

Fall is the season of change. In a different reality, this change would have begun with the Minnesota State Fair commemorating summer’s end and introducing us to a new school year. But it’s safe to say that the season of change emerged months ago, with the Covid-19 pandemic, distance learning, and the civil unrest in communities across the nation and world. Our arrival in this new season comes with even more change, as we vote for the next group of federal and state leaders. We don’t know for certain what the future holds. But if there is anything we can be sure of, is that it’s one for the history books.

Danyika Leonard covers happenings at the legislature, progress on EE’s policy priorities, and share updates on key education policies.