2014 Session Review Part II: Modest Education Progress But No Significant Reforms

One thing stood out about education issues during the 2014 Minnesota legislative session:  the lack of significant reforms. Lawmakers made modest progress, but much work remains to create the strongest possible schools for our students.

Common Sense Reforms Ignored

The lack of action on common sense reforms was disheartening. In particular, there was a proposal to protect kids from having the lowest performing teacher in a school two years in a row, and another to allow teacher performance to factor in staffing decisions. Given all that we know about the importance of quality teachers, it was very disappointing that neither of these reforms were considered this year.

Positive Developments

There were some positive education developments during the 2014 session, the most significant of which was providing additional funding so that all teachers undergo regular performance evaluations starting next school year. In addition, legislators:

  • Removed the hard cap on Parent Aware early learning scholarships starting in FY2016. Meeting low-income children’s early learning needs is a crucial part of combatting the achievement gap.
  • Ensured that families will receive information about their student’s results on state exams (MCAs). This is critical for helping parents know if their kids are on track.
  • Lifted the “gag rule” that bars post-secondary institutions from telling high schoolers about the potential cost-savings of post-secondary enrollment options (PSEO). Unfortunately, the gag rule was only removed in larger school districts because smaller schools were concerned about losing a portion of their state funding if students take advantage of PSEO. This concern is understandable, but students and families should know about their educational options, and PSEO has spurred dual credit programs throughout the state. We hope the legislature next year ensures that all  kids know about all of their options, regardless of where they live.

Basic Skills Law Weakened

For nearly 30 years Minnesota has required new teachers to pass basic skill exams in reading, writing, and math. Like the 41 other states that have similar requirements, the Minnesota law was designed to ensure that teachers are competent in the basics. There was a serious risk this session that the basic skill exams law would be repealed. It wasn’t, but a modification will allow composite ACT or SAT scores set by the Board of Teaching to substitute for the basic skill exams. We have two concerns:

  1. We suspect the Board of Teaching will set passing scores at a low level.
  2. Using composite scores allows someone to make up for weakness in one subject with strength in another.

That said, at least students will have some assurance that new teachers will have core skill competence.

The Verdict

2014 won’t be remembered as a year in which lawmakers enacted bold reforms that secured educational excellence in Minnesota, but there was some forward progress and no major setbacks. Significant work remains to be done and we hope lawmakers put students’ interests first when they reconvene next year.