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House members bone up on teacher policies

Pencils out, education lobbyists. For good measure, make sure the eraser works, too.

Lawmakers have begun to delve into the findings of a working group tasked with recommending policy and funding formulas for teacher evaluations and alternative compensation programs for teachers, commonly known as Q Comp. The next assignment falls to the Legislature, which has to craft legislation that would make the two programs, related but not connected, function as one coherent system.

Work group members presented their suggested course of action to the House Education Finance Committee on Thursday, leading a walk-through of 11 recommendations to implement a new, unified law.

In short, their report calls for the two existing programs to be overlaid, with neither altered significantly. The statutes were passed years apart, and under different administrations. Q Comp has been in place since 2005, while evaluations were a 2011 compromise between Republicans and Gov. Mark Dayton.

They are also at different stages of implementation. Q Comp, an opt-in measure, is in place in some of the state’s largest school districts, including Anoka-Hennepin and Minneapolis Public Schools; fully half the state’s student population attends school with Q Comp. Evaluations, by contrast, went through a first phase of pilot testing during the last school year, and only a half-dozen districts tried out the “whole model” of the program.

The two laws are supposed to reward teachers who excel, through Q Comp, while taking prescriptive action for teachers who struggle. In practice, the programs spark a flashpoint debate about teachers unions, layoffs and the true cause of the achievement gap between Minnesota’s white and minority students.

Discussion of that nature only breached the surface at one point during Thursday’s hearing, when Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-Minneapolis, alluded to beliefs around teacher evaluations that are “based on ideological perspectives.” Mariani, formerly chair of the education policy committee, commended the recommendations for their focus on teacher development and improvement, rather than firings.

“There are folks in the broader community, who think the approach should be about identifying those ‘bad old teachers,’” Mariani said.

University of Minnesota professor Misty Sato, who served on the work group, agreed, saying the evaluations were not designed to be a “gotcha model” approach.

“You’re trying to identify strengths, you’re trying to build on strengths,” Sato said. “At the same time, you’re identifying areas of improvement, and putting in place the necessary supports.”

Unsaid, but surely known to all, was the fact that committee chair Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, has introduced a bill that would require school districts to include teacher evaluations among their criteria for putting teachers on an unrequested leave of absence. Loon did not interject during that exchange, and spoke only occasionally during the hearing.

The most significant recommendation from the work group would eliminate the current voluntary nature of alternative compensation, making it mandatory. Presently, Q Comp is running in only 81 of 337 public school districts and 69 out of 157 charter schools. However, the group recommended that performance-based pay be determined between local school districts and teacher unions, and not be a requirement.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, asked the presenters if their recommendations were expected to be adopted wholesale.

“I do believe that they are a must,” said Kelley Spiess, co-chair of the working group. “This is a full package.”

That position was later supported by Katy Perry, a lobbyist for the Education Minnesota, who represented the teachers union on the working group. Perry said the recommendations favoring local control for design and implementation are “essential,” given the vast range in the number of teachers and students in different districts.

The closest Thursday’s hearing came to conflict arose when legislators took issue with the recommendation that the program use the same funding formula currently in place for Q Comp. That amounts to up to $169 per student in state funding — which, in truth, comes from the federal government — with the option for school districts to hold a local levy for an additional $91 per student.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, who teaches at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton High School, said his district had begun teacher evaluations, and was confident the program would lead to better, data-driven results in education. But, under the formula, the district is due to receive $270,000 for its 1,600 students, which he thinks is excessive.

“I know that’s not costing that much,” said Marquart, the DFL lead on the committee. “I calculated that even if we hired a new teacher, and every one of our 122 teachers took three complete days off, and had to be filled with [substitute teachers], that would only be half of the $270,000.”

Loon also asked about the funding mechanism, pointing out that 2 percent of existing state aid to school districts is set aside for teacher development.

“I’m wondering how that amount was factored into your recommendation,” Loon said.

In response, Rose Hermodson, an assistant commissioner with the Department of Education, said the two amounts should be aligned, but considered separate funds.

“This is a heavy lift,” Hermodson said. “There’s a lot of work involved.”

On another point, Loon observed that the recommendations left determinations of how to design new compensation schemes up to local leaders. Loon said her own district had chosen to set aside “a great portion” of its Q Comp funding for teacher performance bonuses.

Hermodson said it can be difficult to discern how districts are allotting their Q Comp money, with some offering bonuses and others providing career enhancement systems that could move a teacher from the classroom into an administrative role.

The committee adjourned its work after a genial conversation.  Next on the agenda, according to the House calendar, was Loon’s House File 2, which was scheduled for its committee debut on the following Tuesday.

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