If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Co-opt ‘em

With the dust settling, turns out this year’s legislative session might have been a good one for kids


You might be forgiven for tuning out as this year’s state Legislature ground its way toward adjournment, adjourned, went back into session, adjourned, went back into session and finally, mercifully, adjourned for good.

I know I did. From reading the headlines it seemed like Minnesota SOP: Incremental gains in both policy and finance that let the electeds from both parties to go back to their districts claiming to have delivered for kids–if nothing transformative.

And so I have been reading and rereading a newly released wrap-up of the session’s finer points put together by EdAllies, a policy advocacy group, with a mixed mind. Because despite the relatively narrow cast of this year’s headlines, it looks like a lot of solid policy got hammered out.

And the DFL governor, who has not been an advocate of many of the policy changes he nonetheless signed into law, got a lot more money for education out of the GOP than looked likely at the start of the year. Which is huge, given that the state has fallen far behind education funding levels of the early 2000s.

So what’s mixed about my mind? More money for kids and good policy should be a slam-dunk, right? And it could be, but if you look at the arenas in which long-sought progress was won you’ll note that many of them are areas where legislatures past have voted in changes only to watch them founder in the quicksand of bureaucratic resistance.

I say we set cynicism aside for a while and see whether the third time’s the charm.

And indeed 2017 was the third time in Gov. Mark Dayton’s tenure that lawmakers took up and passed changes to the state’s teacher licensure procedures. In fact, a bill directing the Board of Teaching to streamline and clarify the requirements for granting Minnesota licenses to teachers with track records of success in other states was the first item Dayton signed into law back in the early days of his first term.

Thousands of words have been penned about what happened next. The board did not create a clear path to reciprocity, as it’s sometimes called, choosing instead to continue debating the merits of changing the law. That was followed by threats of lawsuits, another legislative mandate to create the process, a class-action suit, a judge’s tartly worded injunction and finally a report from the Legislative Auditor deeming the entire licensing process, not just the one for teachers seeking to move to Minnesota, in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul.

The debate over this one was so intense I don’t feel the need to recap except to note that despite social media hysteria demanding Dayton veto the bill, the new licensure system, which creates four tiers that recognize differing levels of teacher qualification and mastery, actually for the first time creates a minimum threshold for who can enter the classroom.

Hand-in-glove with reciprocity comes a revision to the other “alternative certification” bill Dayton signed early on, the creation of unconventional teacher training programs. This year’s legislature created a stream of funding for the programs and eliminated a requirement they be carried out in conjunction with a Minnesota university.

This one’s fascinating. Yes, the University of Minnesota and Teach for America ran a joint program for a couple of cycles and then ended it—after Board of Teaching resistance. There are several schools of thought on what did not go right that maybe ought to be fodder for a thorough dissection.

The funny thing that happened along the way, though, was that the U and various school districts seized on the model as a way to solve two seemingly intractable problems. One, to increase the number of teachers of color, bilingual educators and special education license-holders by creating grow-your-own programs with training pipelines that look a lot like TFA.

Indeed, by the time this spring’s teacher union-backed protests of the dismissal of several non-tenured educators hit Minneapolis and Richfield took place, the group of labor organizers attempting to rally folks around the cause of classroom diversity were claiming credit for the widespread implementation of the alternative prep tracks.

If you can’t beat ‘em, co-opt ‘em.

Two other policy changes that have faced uphill battles involve the way Minnesota collects the data that can be used to identify achievement gaps by race, ability status and so forth. Broadly sketched, the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind requires states to continue to collect data and to ensure that it’s used to evaluate schools. But it leaves open how states—which historically don’t police themselves very well—do this.

Because the old law had states collect data on broad racial and ethnic groupings, e.g. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Minnesota advocates in 2016 pressed for a law that would require more specific groupings. The idea was to collect information to help identify issued confronting more specific subgroups, particularly the Southeast Asian and African ethnicities attending Minnesota schools in large numbers.

I’ll spare you the shaggy dog story, but what the state Department of Education—which opposed the 2016 bill–chose to do with this was to draft a rule wherein districts would have to collect information on 96 subgroups, many of them European. In response district administrators screamed bloody murder. Et voila, a mandate state leaders did not want became an albatross.

This year’s fix will roll out the collection of a rational amount of data in phases. And it also backstops the other threat to the continued flow of information: The new federal law requires states to ensure schools assess 95 percent of students. Which hasn’t been happening in a number of schools, whose district overseers seem loathe to tangle with the virulent voices behind the so-called Opt Out movement. The Legislature has directed MDE to make sure districts enforce this one.

The last two items probably ought to go into the category of wait-and-see. The more dramatic of the two is the elimination of a Minnesota law that said that in the absence of some other agreement with their teacher unions, school districts had to make layoff decisions according to seniority. Districts and unions must now bargain processes.

Minneapolis and St. Paul schools don’t currently have boards that seem willing to prod labor for any concessions, but a majority of districts around the country have negotiated layoff provisions that take other factors, such as teacher effectiveness, into account and skies have not fallen.

The last bit of sausage is the least understood, possibly because it was hatched as an 11th-hour attempt to find some common ground between the governor and Education Minnesota, who wanted money for pre-K to go to school-based classrooms populated by any 4-year-old, and advocates of a system that would direct money to impoverished families with children of any age to enable them to pay for high quality early ed.

MinnPost’s Erin Heinrichs took a thorough look at the proposal in May. The only .02 I have to add is that directing money to a school-readiness fund that allows low-income families to use it in flexible ways just might be the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of the moment: Early ed advocates get funds for the neediest tots while the governor gets to claim the funding of pre-K as his legacy.

The key to all of this, of course, is whether years of pecking away at some of these issues has created enough wiggle room within the status quo. And there might be: There is nothing in the aforementioned policy shifts that prevents anyone—ideology or philosophy notwithstanding—from telling their constituents it’s a win.

More money plus better policy? Let’s hold out the possibility this year’s fine print gets read.


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