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Session 2001: Education
By Tim Pugmire
December 27, 2000
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Lawmakers will tackle proposals on classroom funding, alternative pay systems for teachers and school accountability. They could also end up going back to the drawing board on the Profile of Learning graduation standards.

THE MOST AMBITIOUS SCHOOL FUNDING PROPOSAL of the Legislature will be debated primarily in tax committees, not the education panels. Gov. Ventura wants to shift much of the cost of public education from local property taxes to the state.

Educators say the shift could make a big difference in where the money for schools comes from, but it won't improve the level of state funding they receive. As a result they'll seek an increase in the state education funding formula. Legislators won't see a budget-writing blueprint from Ventura until late January.

Christine Jax, commissioner of the Department of Children, Families and Learning, says the governor plans no more than inflationary increases in education spending.

"He's a fiscal conservative, he wants to hold the line on spending," Jax says. "He believes that's what the people of Minnesota want, and there was a lot of money put into the educational system last year. This year, he wants to target the money in ways that are going to be fully aligned with achievement and where we can hold schools accountable."

Jax and the agency she heads provided a limited glimpse of that school accountability initiative in December when they released a list of schools that aren't measuring up on third- and fifth grade test scores. She's expected to propose a more comprehensive, statewide system of school accountability that gives the public a better look at comparative school data, and provides help to schools.

Republican Rep. Alice Seagren, chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says she supports the idea of holding schools more accountable for the funding they receive.

"Last session we put $1.1 billion dollars into education. I think it turned out to be a a 14-percent increase. I think the taxpayer wants to be assured, and parents want to be assured, that we are getting a good result for the money we're putting into it," Seagren says.

It's getting harder for Minnesota schools to hire qualified teachers for math, science and other subject specialties. Many experienced teachers are quitting for better pay in the private sector. The shortage has prompted state policymakers to take a critical look at the way teachers are paid.

Commissioner Jax wants to move away from paying teachers based on years of service and education. Instead, she's proposing incentive money to school districts that link teacher pay to classroom performance, skills and responsibilities.

"We want to make sure that we can keep our great teachers in the classroom. We want to be able to entice college students and high school students into the field. And we want to find a way to get some of the best and brightest in other fields interested in education. To do that we're going to have to look at a different compensation system," Jax says. Faced with the governor's budget constraints, Jax says she'll propose funding a handful of pilot projects for alternative teacher compensation. Representative Seagren says she wants to move ahead quickly on a much larger scale.

"We have enough people that have been trying things within the state and we have some issue with shortages and with the tight job market that we could take this opportunity right now to try to change the system," says Seagren.

Contention over state graduation standards is expected to surface again this session. A recent independent review of Minnesota's Profile of Learning graduation standards, by Achieve Inc., highlighted many shortcomings of the show-what-you know system and suggested ways it could be improved. Profile opponents are gearing up for another attempt to scrap the system. Commissioner Jax says her agency can make adjustments and improvements to the standards without having another legislative battle on the merits of the Profile.

Republican Rep. Harry Mares, chairman of the House Education Policy Committee, agrees. He says he wants to make sure the graduation standards are clear, challenging, understandable and measurable. But Mares says any revisions should be done away from the Legislature.

"When we talk about rewriting standards, I don't know of one person in the Legislature that's qualified to do that, including myself. That's an area where you need great expertise. The best people to do that would be the teacher in the classroom," says Mares.

DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas, who succeeds Larry Pogemiller as chair of the K-12 Education Committee, is suggesting a hands off approach to the Profile of Learning. She says lawmakers are only obligated to look at the Achieve report and listen to the commissioner's recommendations.

"Beyond that, we don't necessarily have responsibility to act on it unless we agree that there's some problems," says Pappas. "It's my personal feeling that we should just let graduation rule and the standards kind of sit for a while."

Legislators will also look at whether the state should be doing more to help young children before they enter the public school system. A report from a private commission last fall proposed the state pump more than $480 million a year into pre-kindergarten programs.

"Children who are really prepared well to learn do better in school. They're more successful students, they go on to college, they become more productive workers and citizens," says Pappas.

Pappas says if development of a statewide early childhood system is not possible this year, she wants to at least fund several pilot projects. She says early childhood education will be the focus of her committee's first hearing of the 2001 session.

Tim Pugmire is Minnesota Public Radio's education reporter. Reach him via e-mail at