Nathan: Education leaders offer praise and perspective on 2013 Minnesota Legislature

Praise and perspective – that’s what more than 30 Minnesota Education leaders offered last week when asked about the 2013 Minnesota Legislature’s decisions on K-12 education. That includes superintendents Jim Johnson, Monticello; Julia Espe, Princeton; Nancy Rajanen, Waconia; and Bruce Novak, Cambridge, as well as Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. They agreed in most areas and raised a few concerns.
Asked for his brief summary of the legislative session’s impact, Johnson wrote, “I think the legislation that will have the greatest impact is the funding for all-day kindergarten. … The earlier we’re able to work with students the greater the overall impact will be in their education. This commitment to our youngest learners (will) be a positive influence for all students who take advantage of this opportunity.”
This was by far the most praised aspect of the bill among the district and charter public school educators contacted. Lynn Gluck, executive director of Cologne Academy wrote: “Gov. Mark Dayton’s education budget bill will positively impact funding for all public schools, including charter schools, like Cologne Academy. Most relevant to the work we do at Cologne Academy will be the funding of all-day kindergarten.” Though the state funding won’t start until 2014, Cologne will offer all-day kindergarten in fall 2013.
While praising the law overall, several educators pointed to future priorities. Rajanen believes “the 2014 Legislature must address the enormous cost of the 2012 law regarding teacher evaluation. Quality evaluation of teachers need to be a priority, but cannot be an unfunded mandate.” Novak also appreciates the overall increase in funding and additional support for students with special needs. However, he wrote, “This is not even close to what the cost of special education is across the state.”
• In a controversial decision, legislators stopped requiring that students pass reading, writing and math tests before high school graduation. Instead, students will take tests showing how prepared they are for some form of two- or four-year college and various careers. Several educators agreed. Espe wrote that this “is more aligned to our district’s emphasis upon academic growth and career- and college-ready students.”
• However, Weaver strongly disagreed with this decision. In a letter to legislators he shared with me, Weaver wrote that the legislature did “make some positive changes for Minnesota students, such as expansion of Parent Aware early education scholarships, goals for student achievement by 2027, and a transition to high school exams that indicate student readiness for post-secondary education.”
• However, Weaver believes that the Legislature took “one step forward with the new high school exams, but three steps back with the elimination of basic expectations for student performance on state exams. Under the new system, students who perform at the bottom levels in reading, writing and math on the exams can still graduate with a high school diploma. Current state expectations for student performance on reading and writing high school exams … have led to significant increases in the percent of students of color meeting state standards, graduating from high school and lowering drop-out rates.”
• Because graduation requirements are so important, I’ll be writing more about this in a future column.
• It’s impossible to briefly yet fully describe a law that is more than 200 pages long. But despite some disagreements, educators and business people agreed that this year’s Legislature expanded opportunities, especially for young children in important ways.

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