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With newly installed Republican majorities in the House and Senate, K-12 education reform became the subject of intense debate this year, a struggle that began in the regular session and continued until just hours before the Legislature convened to pass the package of budget bills that ended the shutdown in July.

GOP gets half a loaf on K-12 priorities

Senate Education Committee Chair Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, says she expects that lawmakers will eventually link tenure and benefits to the teacher evaluation measure passed this year. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Republicans gain on teacher evaluations, reading proficiency, lose on tenure changes

With newly installed Republican majorities in the House and Senate, K-12 education reform became the subject of intense debate this year, a struggle that began in the regular session and continued until just hours before the Legislature convened to pass the package of budget bills that ended the shutdown in July.

In the final version of the K-12 bill, Republicans fell short of passing their most far-reaching proposals affecting teachers and student learning.

But House K-12 Finance Committee Chair Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, did gain ground on teacher contract issues and says he believes the stage is set for more reform campaigns in the future.

“Everybody agrees that we took positive steps this year, and we’ll continue to take positive steps in the future,” Garofalo said. “Would I like to have done more? Yes, yes — I would have. But we’re going to keep getting stuff done.”

Some proposed changes — like transforming teacher tenure into a system where teacher contracts are up for renewal every five years — simply didn’t pass. Other measures, such as creating a new teacher evaluation system, passed after lengthy negotiations and compromises. Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, marvels at how proposals that were objectionable to teachers unions and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton were retooled to make up part of the legislation that passed.

Kyte called the K-12 reforms “one of the biggest sets of policy changes that we’ve seen in recent years. There are three significant areas where Republicans teed up issues and brought initial bills that to me felt kind of extreme. But in the final negotiations they actually came up with what I think will be very good things for education.”

Those three areas are integration aid, third-grade reading proficiency and teacher evaluation. They are among a series of policy and spending modifications in a sector that represents roughly 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

Teacher evaluations

There were bipartisan calls throughout the session to create a statewide system for evaluating teachers.

But Dayton and Republican legislators clashed over the details. In particular, they had intractable differences over whether the evaluations should be linked to tenure and compensation decisions. Republican legislators also tried to base 50 percent of the evaluation standard on student test scores like Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, introduced teacher evaluation legislation that became a large part of the final compromise. The legislation kicks off a complex process of establishing criteria for an evaluation system. Brynaert’s bill, ironically, didn’t receive a scheduled committee hearing during the regular legislative session and was shot down when offered as an amendment in two different committees.

Instead of 50 percent, the bill ties 35 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance as defined at the local district level. That could include, but is not limited to, test scores.

“There were those who argued strongly for the 50 percent,” Brynaert said, “but I think there’s some arbitrariness in the numbers. It’s helpful that the number is reduced.”

Senate Education Committee Chair Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said she expects that lawmakers will connect tenure and benefits with the teacher evaluations. But at the moment, Dayton is firmly opposed.

“There was great resistance to [teacher evaluations] being recognized in compensation [decisions], and hopefully will change in the future,” Olson said. “The governor was pretty adamant that anything that had to do with collective bargaining and tenure and any of these kinds of issues was not in [the final bill].”

The bill drew praise from the Education Minnesota statewide teachers union.

The legislation also includes language that was carried by House Education Reform Chair Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, to create a system that trains principals to evaluate teachers.

A couple of other controversial proposals related to teacher employment were opposed by unions and rejected by Dayton. One would have done away with the teacher tenure system in favor of renewing contracts every five years. Another proposal would have abolished the policy known as “last in, first out” in which teachers are laid off strictly on the basis of seniority. Both were priorities for the business community, said Cecilia Retelle, education policy director for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

“When you still have last in, first out, the teacher evaluations are useless,” Retelle said.

Reading proficiency

In April, former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush came to Minnesota to lobby for a program that he started in the Sunshine State to hold back third-grade students who don’t reach literacy benchmarks. The Florida proposal was taken up in the House but didn’t make the final budget bill.

Olson cut a different path in the Senate, and hers was the approach that ultimately prevailed. The bill as passed will measure schools based on the share of students who achieve reading proficiency by third grade. The state will give financial incentives to districts that show significant improvement.

“If our teaching of [reading] is not what it should be, we should not be blaming the students,” Olson said. “That’s why we’ve been working toward improving our teachers’ capacity to handle the different challenges and become competent in all the reading instruction methods so they are able to alter and address individual students’ needs.”

The bill also tripled the amount of money allocated to the Minnesota Reading Corps, Olson said.

Integration aid

Republicans initially proposed to eliminate integration aid, which provides funding to help racially isolated schools become more diverse. Dayton sided with districts in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth by vetoing an earlier bill that ended the $90 million in funding.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor has raised questions about the success of integration aid. During early-stage K-12 negotiations, Republicans insisted on keeping changes to integration aid on the table.

The final bill that Dayton signed sunsets the program in two years. In the meantime, a task force will consider alternatives.

“We’re going to end up with a more student-focused use for those dollars,” Garofalo said.

Early childhood education

Former Republican state Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson took his former colleagues to task during the session for not adopting a quality rating system for early childhood education. Benson, who now runs the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, took to the opinion pages of the Star Tribune to lament the Legislature’s failure to move forward on a system to help parents find the right programs for their kids.

Business groups were hoping the rating system would be passed.

Olson, however, said the quality-based rating system under consideration puts too much emphasis on “inputs,” which include the things that students are exposed to on a daily basis like classroom space, equipment and curriculum. She said the system needs to include outputs that take into account the degree to which the program has prepared students for school.

“If this is a quality rating system that’s been developed nationally and it’s all on the input side, I think we can do better than that,” Olson said.

Lawmakers did pass a program to provide scholarships for low-income children to attend early childhood programs.

“Whether you call it vouchers or scholarships, it doesn’t really matter,” Garofalo said. “It’s a market-based Republican approach to expanding early childhood learning, and I’m really excited about it.”

January 15 deadline repeal

The bill has rankled teacher unions by removing the penalty that school districts face if they don’t reach a contract deal with teachers by January 15.

Retelle said the law had given unions an unfair advantage in contract negotiations.

“If you’re forced to negotiate something by a deadline, and otherwise the other side has to pay, that’s a huge benefit for you,” Retelle said.

St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker disagrees that school districts are the only ones that get punished by missing the deadline.

“We’re teachers, and all of our important assignments have due dates. If you’re negotiating contracts with teachers, of course you assign a due date,” Ricker said.

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