Lawmakers spar over education fixes

By Alex Van Abbema and Olivia Novotny // Murphy News Service

Senate DFLers are working to push several education bills through the Legislature, including one to address the state’s looming teacher shortage and another to help fund voluntary pre-kindergarten programs statewide. Another DFL education priority would provide grants to help fund support staff such as school counselors, nurses, psychologists and others.

Republicans who control the House are also intent on addressing the teacher shortage by increasing diversity in teacher ranks and convincing prospective college students to get interested in teaching.

But some House and Senate Republicans believe that DFLers’ proposal to increase counselors is not going to solve the problem, and say money should be dispersed to school districts on an as-needed basis. Republicans are in favor of early learning programs over expanded pre-kindergarten in Minnesota, in part because early learning programs tend to have a more flexible schedule for both parents and children.

Teacher Shortage Act

Both Republicans and DFLers acknowledge that the state needs to attract more teachers. Between 2010 and 2014, the state experienced a 48.5 percent drop in newly licensed math teachers, according to the 2015 Teacher Supply and Demand Report created by the state Department of Education. The report also found that about 56 percent of school district leaders said they would find it very difficult to hire special education teachers.

The Teacher Shortage Act, authored by DFL Sen. Kevin Dahle, would attempt to address the shortage by focusing on recruitment and retention. Bills have passed committees in the House and Senate and have been referred to finance committees for funding decisions.

One reason for the teacher shortage, many believe, is the licensure exam, which DFL senators are working to eliminate. “The exam acts as a barrier to entry: it is severely flawed and difficult to pass,” Dahle said. “A lot of people fail the test, especially people of color.”

The bill would also focus on creating a streamlined path for paraprofessionals and educational assistants to get their teacher license, provide grants to cover student teaching, and make it possible for people to pursue teaching degrees while still working in schools.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, supports Dahle’s outline, but wants to see it developed further. Loon said she specifically wants to get more diversity in the teaching ranks, and she is working on pilot projects to get people of color to become teachers.

Rep. Ron Kresha, the Republican vice-chair of the House Education Finance Committee, was a teacher 20 years ago. He agrees that teaching restrictions must be removed, but also says the problem is bigger.

“Until young people decide that they want to start putting learning first, and helping people I don’t know how we’re going to build the teaching force,” Kresha said.

Dahle said teacher numbers are much lower than they have been in the past, with extra difficulty finding teachers in special education, math, and science. “Current teachers are retiring, and no one is coming in, mainly due to license difficulty, lengthy applications, and low pay given student loan debt,” Dahle said.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said she hears much about violence in the classrooms, and said that the publicity of those incidents repel potential teachers from the occupation. “Those kind of assaults that we’re seeing create a very negative environment for anybody who’s thinking of going into education,” Kiffmeyer said.

Loon and other House members have sponsored a bill that, if passed, would notify teachers if there is a student with a history of violent behavior in their classroom.

Pre-K Bill

Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton pushed to use $343 million of the state’s budget surplus to create a universal, school-based prekindergarten program for all 4-year-olds. Though he lost his battle for universal pre-K, the Legislature ultimately passed a $17 billion education funding bill that added about $48 million in early learning scholarships.

Now, the DFL Senate is proposing a bill that allows a school district or charter school to offer a voluntary kindergarten program for all four-year-old children. The state-funded Pre-K must prepare children for kindergarten and meet the state prekindergarten criteria. Criteria include instruction that accelerates a child’s language and literacy skills, as well as a 10-1 student-to-teacher ratio.

Building early learning programs and providing early learning scholarships is a goal shared by both Kresha and Kiffmeyer. Kresha’s number one priority this session is to get early learning scholarships to disadvantaged children and those in foster homes.

Kiffmeyer disagrees with the DFL proposal, saying she appreciates the flexibility of school readiness programs, and adding that people in her district don’t want or need a mandatory Pre-K program.

“We have a very good system in our area here, with private Pre-K school readiness. Just a whole bunch of options that are really, really good,” Kiffmeyer said.

Support Staff Bill

The DFL Senate also is pushing the support staff bill. It would set up a grant program to help schools hire new support staff, including counselors, nurses, school psychologists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors, to address shortages and decrease the workload for existing support personnel.

Historically, many states have introduced mandated ratios of support staff, but not Minnesota. Several past efforts to require them have failed, leading to shortages in support staff, DFL Sen. Susan Kent said.

The current proposal would give schools the option to apply to get a grant for any new positions or existing positions. The state would pay 50 percent of the support staff’s salary for four years, and then the next two years it would pay 25 percent. After that, schools would have to cover the entire cost.

Loon and Kiffmeyer say that a specific proposal toward counselors isn’t the right way to address the problem. Kiffmeyer said there is no “one size that fits all” in terms of schools, and that the school districts should be able to move money around to specific areas of need.

“What I hear from our school districts is ’Don’t tie our hands by giving a specific amount of money for a specific purpose,’” Kiffmeyer said.

Rep. Loon said that mental health counseling and social services are important, but she is concerned with how the grant program is set up.

Schools will have to provide a one-to-one dollar match with the district to receive a grant, and after a few years the grant would go away. “Then the schools would be on the hook for money without the grant funding,” she said.

Alex Van Abbema and Olivia Novotny are studying journalism at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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