Education leaders offer praise and perspective on 2013 MN 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. They included superintendents Deb Henton of North Branch, Linda Madsen of Forest Lake and Bruce Novak of Cambridge, as well as Cam Gordon, director of Lakes International Charter, and Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. They agreed in most areas. But some things concern them.

Henton wrote, “We are very pleased with the outcome of this legislative session. The EC-12 omnibus bill the governor signed into law will provide funding over the biennium that has long been needed for our school district. Our children and their families will be positively impacted, and we are very grateful to the governor and our legislators for recognizing that we needed this funding now.”

Many educators praised new funding for all-day, everyday kindergarten. Madsen wrote that it “shows the commitment to getting students off to a great start with their education. This begins statewide in FY 2015 and Forest Lake will provide this beginning in the fall of 2013.” Gordon says it’s a “big step forward for the state.”

Gordon also wrote, “I worry about how prescriptive the state is becoming with school accountability, measured solely on static tests of knowledge. I believe that Minnesotans are concerned for the whole child, including their mental, social and emotional growth in addition to cognitive development. I would like measures of school success to reflect the whole child as well.”

While praising the law overall, Novak was disappointed in relatively modest increases in funding for students with special needs. “This is not even close to what the cost of special education is across the state; in Cambridge-Isanti last year we had cross subsidy costs for special education a little over $2 million. The revenue will help but … doesn’t come close to covering the excess costs of special education.”

In a controversial decision, legislators decided to stop requiring that students pass reading, writing and math tests before graduation. Instead, students will take tests showing how prepared they are for two-or-four-year college and various careers.

Weaver strongly disagreed with this decision. In a letter to legislators and 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.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]

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