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Three positive changes for Minnesota schools

July 4, 2017 GMT

Minnesotans have become accustomed to turbulence at the State Capitol, and this year is no exception. After vetoing the legislature’s initial state budget bills during regular session, Gov. Mark Dayton called back lawmakers for a special session, in which the two sides agreed to a compromise budget.

However, despite signing the budget bills, the governor used his line item veto to defund the Legislature, a move that has raised constitutional questions and spurred a legal challenge.

In the midst of the noise and political machinations, it’s easy to overlook the significant strides lawmakers made this year in several areas, including tax relief, transportation funding, and perhaps most of all, education reform. Spurred in part by four years of stagnant student performance, state lawmakers stepped up with an E-12 education bill containing historic advances in teacher licensure reform, teacher retention and early education -- all in addition to nearly $500 million in new funding for schools.

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Rochester’s Sen. Carla Nelson, as chairwoman of the Senate’s E-12 Finance Committee, played a key role in making these positive changes happen for our students and schools.

Among the highlights of this year’s education bill:

Removing barriers to attracting, and retaining great teachers: Minnesota’s teacher licensure system had become needlessly bureaucratic and, in the words of the nonpartisan Legislative Auditor, “broken.” Further illustrating the point, last year a district court judge found the Minnesota Board of Teaching in contempt of court for failing to implement state law.

Lawmakers responded by listening and working over the past year to develop solutions that not only consolidate responsibilities into a new licensure board, but also streamline requirements through a new tiered licensure structure. This new tiered structure clarifies expectations for prospective teachers, and creates flexibility and incentives to attract talented teachers from other states and mid-career professionals looking to enter teaching. Overall, these changes raise expectations, are broadly supported and will help bring passionate and talented people to the profession.

Additionally, lawmakers provided funding for effective alternative programs that develop new and more diverse teachers, as well as loan forgiveness opportunities for teachers in shortage areas.

Finally, lawmakers also repealed the state’s “last-in-first-out” (LIFO) default law, which mandated school districts layoff teachers strictly based on seniority – without regard to performance. Minnesota was one of only six states with this archaic law in place. Teacher retention policies will now be fully decided by districts and their teachers.

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Bolstering early education scholarships for low-income families: Nelson has long been a key leader in recognizing the importance of quality early education in helping prepare children to succeed school and later in life. For example, research shows that for every $1 invested in helping low-income children access quality early education services we see nearly $16 in societal benefits. So it was heartening to see lawmakers increase funding for early education scholarships by nearly $21 million, a flexible, proven approach to meeting low-income families’ early education needs.

Preparing students for career success: Funding was also provided to support the development of regional career and technical education consortiums – partnerships that can include school districts, employers and post-secondary institutions. Part of the goal for these consortiums is to raise high school student awareness about local career opportunities and to give them the education and training needed to successfully transition into employment and remain in their communities.

While there is no silver bullet for improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps, Minnesota made significant progress this year by focusing on attracting and retaining talented and diverse people to the teaching profession, giving more families access to effective early education services and helping ensure students are prepared for the opportunities that follow high school graduation.