Schools for Equity in Education

– Legislative Update

Tumultuous week in the Education Conference Committee.  Is reading the only barrier to student success?

Just one week and a weekend left in the session!  The Education Conference Committee met this week to draft a single education bill from the very different versions in the Senate and the House.  Senate Chair Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) and House Chair Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis) alternated on who controlled the agenda.  Knowing the Senate’s laser focus on LETRS literacy training, Chair Davnie tried to broaden the discussion to the whole child and consider other barriers to students’ academic success.  He brought in testifiers to address these problems.

Chair Chamberlain was not swayed and reiterated that many of these problems are solved if students are reading at grade level.  He insisted that less than 50% of Minnesota students can’t read because their teachers are not trained in the science of reading, and the Senate’s LETRS literacy training for K-5 teachers must be the number one priority for everyone.  At the last meeting, Chair Chamberlain essentially said the House and Senate will agree to support reading to get something done this session, or nothing will get done.  He sent an offer to the House on Thursday, which I haven’t seen yet, but he said it would include:

  • Literacy (LETRS)
  • Parents (I don’t know what he means by that, perhaps the Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation)
  • Student safety – (He has a bill that provides districts with an additional $8 per pupil with a minimum of $20,000 next year, increasing to a minimum of $33,000 after that in Safe School revenue.  The funding can be used for student support staff, including school social workers, counselors, and psychologists.  Both the Senate and House agree that students’ growing mental health needs are a problem.  The House has $100 per pupil for districts to hire new student support staff in their education bill.  Chair Chamberlain did say he could increase the Senate’s  Safe School revenue some.)

The Senate often references Mississippi as a success story, and I have to say I never thought Mississippi would ever beat Minnesota in academic success.   Every two years, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests students across the U.S. in 4th and 8th-grade reading and math, often referred to as the nation’s report card.  Mississippi catapulted from the bottom to the top in 2019 NAEP’s 4th-grade reading scores.  Around 2013, Mississippi invested in a state-wide intensive reading initiative that included training all K-5 teachers in LETRS.  Mississippi also provides ongoing support, such as LETRS trained coaches in every elementary school to support teachers, which I would like to see in the Senate proposal.

I was happy that the Senate provided this chart SEE developed from the 2019 NAEP results to the committee members and the public, as I think it tells a compelling story.  Indeed, Mississippi had significant gains in reading, especially among the Hispanic students, which proves the success of the LETRS training.  All Minnesota students should see a boost in literacy skills as K-5 teachers become trained in LETRS.  However, Mississippi’s Hispanic reading score of 221, which places Mississippi second in the nation for Hispanic students, is comparable to the second-lowest score in the country for white students.  The situation is even worse for Black students.  In Mississippi, the reading score for Black students is 209 placing them seventh in the nation, considerably below the worst-performing white students in the nation.

The data suggests there are other barriers to increasing student literacy that even a well-trained elementary teacher in the science of reading can’t break through.  Minnesota schools need the resources to remove the obstacles that prevent students of color from reaching the academic level of their white peers, such as English language proficiency and racial disparities in education.  In addition, schools have always struggled to find the funding to meet all their students’ mental health needs, and the demand continues to grow.  Increased funding for special education and student support staff will give schools the local control and resources to address the whole child so all students can learn.

Minnesota’s tax collections in April were more than $1.1 billion ahead of expectations.  Some of that was due to timing around tax payments, but there were strong numbers across Minnesota’s main tax categories. The money doesn’t change the amount the legislature has to spend, as it is legally bound to the February 2022 forecast numbers. Yet it should give lawmakers more confidence that the projected budget surplus is real.


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