Questions about the 2013 Minnesota Legislature

Joe Nathan
ECM Publishers Columnist

What are some key questions arising from the 211-page k-12 education bill that the Minnesota legislature has just produced? Give the 2013 Minnesota Legislature considerable credit. It expanded long-needed opportunities for many young people and families. But several things deserve additional attention in 2014.

Why did the legislature allocate almost three times as much money for all- day kindergarten, as it did for three – four-year-old low-income-family scholarships for early childhood education? According to “Session Weekly,” produced by the Minnesota House, all-day kindergarten received $134 million.   Scholarships for three and four year olds to attend strong early childhood education programs received $46 million. Head Start also received about $40 million. But even if you add the scholarship and Head Start money together, all-day kindergarten received almost $50 million more.

Considerable research shows the value of working with young children and low-income families, especially if that effort continues through third grade.

All-day kindergarten is not a bad idea. But couldn’t wealthy parents help pay for all day kindergarten if they want it?

Budgets are in part a statement of priorities. Minnesotans often say we want to close or dramatically reduce major achievement and high school graduation gaps. Given this priority,  early childhood programs for students from low-income and limited English speaking students should be a higher priority.

Why did the Minnesota Senate wait until the last few days to begin discussing a bill designed to reduce bullying, and then ultimately not pass it? Anyone who’s been bullied (as I have), or had a youngster who was victimized, understands this can have very bad impacts, short and long term. It’s a problem in many communities, rich and poor.

How is Minnesota going to measure student progress beyond standardized tests and high school graduation rates? Are students learning to set goals and work toward them? Are students learning to work with others in a group? Are students learning to make a presentation to others? A group of alternative and charter public school educators made recommendations about how to assess some of these skills. Some refer to them as soft skills. But growing evidence says these are vital skills for success in life. The Legislature did not do much with these recommendations. I hope these suggestions are refined, and that the 2014 Legislature works with educators and families to broaden our assessment programs.

Why not allow undocumented students to earn a driver’s license? The Legislature wisely will allow young people who have lived in Minnesota for several years, but are not citizens, the opportunity to pay in-state college tuition. But in many cases, students need to drive to colleges and to work.

Why not more funding to help fulfill state mandates about serving students with special needs? A survey I did earlier this year of more than 40 superintendents and charter school directors identified this as their top priority.

This year’s Legislature did many fine things. But there’s much more we can do to help students achieve their potential.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]