Legislators to consider several education initiatives

Published 3:30 pm Sunday, March 8, 2015

Story by Trey Mewes, Sarah Stultz and Associated Press

Education is shaping up to be a large-scale issue for Minnesota lawmakers this session.

From teacher seniority to higher education funding, state legislators will deal with complex issues that could greatly affect the state moving forward.

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The most recent education development was the House Republican’s passage Thursday of a bill that would, in essence, strip teacher seniority as the sole determining factor when districts review staff positions.

Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea who serves on two House education committees and is a former first-grade teacher at Sibley Elementary School in Albert Lea, said the bill does not remove seniority as a factor in layoff decisions, but it calls for school boards to also consider evaluations in the decisions.

“Every parent or school board member or administrator I talked to was fully for this,” Bennett said. “They know it’s hard with layoffs. Of all the good teachers we have, we want to try to keep the best.”

She said many states have moved away from looking at tenure only in the case of a layoff, and she noted she liked how local school boards would be in control of their own schools.

The bill also included a provision authored by Bennett to deny or revoke a teaching license without a hearing for anyone convicted of a sexual crime against children.

The Republican-controlled House passed the bill 70 to 63 largely along party lines, and it has a difficult road ahead. Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012 vetoed a similar change to Minnesota’s “last in, first out” layoff system, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said he doesn’t support it.

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, predicted the bill wouldn’t pass so easily in the Senate.

“There’s already a process in place that teachers use,” Sparks said. “I think it’s going to face a very uphill battle in the Senate.”

Currently, districts can negotiate their own layoff criteria. If they not choose not to, they default to the state standard, which is largely based on seniority.

Though Sparks and other DFL members may block the bill this session, there’s a chance teacher seniority could come up in the near future. Yet lawmakers may give one of Dayton’s education initiatives the axe this session. Dayton recently proposed a $200 million initiative to bolster pre-kindergarten education around the state by offering access to every Minnesota 4-year-old. That bill has already faced pressure from both sides of the aisle, and a similar measure was defeated earlier this month at the committee level.

“There’s room for education and there’s room for parenting,” Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said.

Poppe, Sparks and other lawmakers say the state’s move toward all-day kindergarten was beneficial for education, but they’re not convinced classes for every 4-year-old child is good government. Poppe and Sparks believe parents should likely have more say in their child’s pre-K education, though Poppe didn’t rule out increased scholarship funding for parents in need who want to enroll their children in pre-K programs.

Bennett said at first glance the proposal sounds positive, but then after further research she had some concerns.

She said she worries about all of the daycares and preschools already in operation and said she thinks it would sink those businesses. She also questioned whether many of the state’s schools were set up for this when they are already still adapting to all-day, everyday kindergarten.

“Schools are saying they don’t have enough money for K-12 as it is,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of things to consider.”

Scholarships, tuition freezes and more may be on the docket when lawmakers consider higher education issues this session. Poppe and Sparks have both sponsored education-related bills this session, and Poppe’s recent proposal to expand agriculture education throughout the state was included in the House DFL’s ag package.

“This is a real clear workforce development proposal to try to get students to see agriculture as a work opportunity,” she said.

Yet Poppe hopes lawmakers consider expanding overall funding to higher education. She would hope legislators consider extending the state’s public colleges and universities tuition freeze, and potentially even scale back tuition at two-year colleges, using some of the state’s proposed $1.87 billion budget surplus.

In addition, Bennett has authored a bill to reduce unnecessary testing, particularly in high schools. The bill would take away requiring the ACT test starting in eighth grade and leave it as an optional test that the state would pay for in 11th or 12th grade.

She wants better feedback from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, including a cutoff for what score a student would need to enter a two-year college and a four-year college.

“We need to make sure the tests are good ones,” Bennett said. “Get rid of the ones that aren’t necessary or that aren’t aligned to our standards.”

A quick look at other issues

In every session, there’s always a few issues that continuously come before lawmakers. Here’s a look at some issues and our legislators’ views on them:

—Allowing liquor stores to sell liquor on Sundays.

Poppe: Doesn’t think lawmakers will pass the law this time around.

Sparks: Believes Sunday liquor store sales has a better chance than in the past.

—Making e-cigarettes fully part of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act.

Both Poppe and Sparks say lawmakers will look to cities and municipalities to pass e-cigarette ordinances on their own.

—Reforms for MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange.

Poppe, Sparks and other lawmakers agree they’ll need to look at reforming parts of MNsure after a legislative auditor’s report took MNsure to task for a first year plagued by problems.