ECM Editorial: Education bill could change state public education system   

As the 2017 legislative session weaves its way to a May 22 session end, education policy proposals abound and it is uncertain which proposal will find its way into law. The Minnesota Legislature must reach agreement with Gov. Dayton on a final bill or face possible vetoes.

Each of the proposals is designed to change individual elements of the public school system and on their own merits each has support. Together, however, and over time, the proposals lead to a different public school system than we have known. The time has come for a comprehensive community discussion as to where the proponents are taking public schools remembering that more than 800,000 Minnesota students attend those schools.

House and Senate education bills address several policy issues that include: extending early childhood education to a wider group of 3-year-olds, changing the teacher certification process and criteria, changing from a reliance on seniority for teacher retention and require consideration of teacher performance rather than length of service, expanding public support of private and church-based schools through extended tax credits, and authorizing “e-days” or computer-based home instruction on snow days.

There are also significant finance proposals. Basic per-student aid will increase but by no more than 2 percent for each of the next two years (Dayton’s proposal). We favor the 2 percent annual hike in basic per pupil aid as a minimum with the understanding that more burden may fall on local property taxes.

If the legislation is approved farmers will receive tax relief on school bonded debt for buildings and capital improvements. Some post-secondary tuition freezes are proposed and funding will increase for state colleges and universities. This is a good time to remember that policy changes are financial issues. Policy issues are seldom proposed without a financial note for increased or decreased expenditures.

Teacher retention based on performance and not tenure rings with a great deal of common sense. Common sense, however, also says that the criteria for evaluation may help determine the quality of teaching. In the proposed law the criteria and system for evaluation is left to each school district. Minnesota should include criteria of good teaching and measure of successful teaching in a larger discussion.

The Legislature proposes acceptance of up to five “e-days” or home-based computer instruction days as alternatives to snow days. The larger question centers on how such learning will fit into Minnesota’s vision for its schools today and the future.

There seems to be agreement on the value of preschool education at least by family choice (not required attendance). However, there are serious questions as to who is qualified to provide the teaching, how choice fits into the proposed system, and what will be the impact on school facilities, bonds and operating costs, teacher supply and demand and existing day-care providers. There is need for a Minnesota vision as to the ultimate level of service the preschool programs provide.

“School choice” offers a critical vision of the public educational system. If the issue is “choice” or “no choice” when choice is possible common sense says let people choose. Current levels of choice primarily extend to charter schools and secondary/post-secondary courses.

Charter schools have proponents that argue their effectiveness and value. Opponents argue the opposite.

Myron Orfield, a former legislator and law professor at the University of Minnesota, believes that choice is further segregating public schools. Others argue that choice divides us as a society.

Current legislation would extend public support through tax credits to private and religious based schools. These proposals and laws can dramatically change the character of public schools. The proposals are offered in a single legislative session but when combined over time with other legislation they are designed to change public schools from a common educational experience to a system where all students from every class, income or ability level learn together in public schools where each family and student decides which school they wish to attend and with whom they wish to attend.

That’s the nature of “choice.” As choice policies are developing the total character of public education is changing without a discussion of whether all of that change is desirable.

Many parents are satisfied with their public schools and yet welcome improvements within the public structure. We think they would be concerned if the structure itself changed significantly and diminished the local public schools as they know them.

We think it is time to slow down and consider exactly what is intended for our public schools if we continue to pursue choice. We also need to discuss the role of public policy in private and church-based schools and where tax credits and vouchers will lead.

It is time for a Minnesota conversation on the future of public schools.

– An opinion of the ECM Publishers Editorial Board- An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. Reactions to this editorial — and to any commentary on these pages – are always welcome. Send to: editor.sun@ecm-inc.com.

 

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