On education, impressive accomplishments, but work still to do and questions remain

June 6, 2023 6:00 am

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, Nov. 29, spoke with students at Lake Middle School in Woodbury, Minnesota. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

Anyone watching knows that this year, the DFL took a slim majority and ran with it, accomplishing an impressive list of goals. On education, they came out of the gate with big wins on universal access to school meals and new investments and policy changes that will strengthen literacy instruction, grow early learning programs, improve school discipline practices, support English learners, increase teacher diversity… the list goes on.

In many ways it felt like a table-clearing year. While there will be a lot of implementation work ahead to ensure policies penned out in St. Paul play out in the classroom, there are a few loose — but important — ends we’ll be watching to see what plot twists may still be in store.

1. The link between school meals and school funding

Universal meals passed, which was a huge win for kids. So the work there is done, right? Yes and no. As long as implementers stay the course and build a straightforward program with minimal red tape, meals should flow and kids should feel real relief both from hunger and lunch shaming. 

But there is a lingering funding question that remains to be answered: How will schools measure students in poverty? Families will have little incentive to complete the school meal eligibility forms that link back to both state and federal aid formulas. There was a serious effort — spearheaded by Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton — to tackle the question of how to do away with said forms and still ensure we get high-poverty schools the funding they need. Ultimately though, it proved too sticky for the pace of the session and was kicked to the Minnesota Department of Education for study and a report back to the Legislature. In 2024, resolving this with an eye toward a long-term, equitable funding formula should be a marquee priority.

2. Pathways to a teaching license

Teacher licensure has become a perennial topic at the Capitol. This session included yet another battle over who is permitted to teach in Minnesota, culminating in one of just a few successful floor amendments: In a bipartisan vote, the Senate said no to removing a pathway for Tier 2 teachers to earn a full license based on evidence of success in the classroom. This was a big win poised to keep the teachers that kids need and districts are clamoring for — and who are more often teachers of color relative to other tiers — in the classroom. (In fact, 25% of teachers on Tier 2, who this provision applies to, are teachers of color.)

The K-12 conference committee, however, deeply undermined the Senate’s intent by restricting who can get Tier 2 licenses in the first place. Whereas before Tier 2 licenses were designed for educators who bring a combination of experience, training and other competencies, conferees gutted the tier back to allowing only candidates enrolled in official teacher preparation programs, or those who already hold a master’s degree — thus eliminating six out of nine Tier 2 licensure pathways.

During the final 5 a.m. floor debate on the K-12 budget bill, there were hints that legislators might come back for a closer look at this next year so we don’t push passionate educators out of the field. We’re on the edge of our seats. 

3. Equitable access to well-rounded academics

In the next few years, Minnesota students will see several changes in the classroom: Improvements to literacy instruction, expansion of ethnic studies courses to all high schools, the addition of civics and financial literacy requirements, and more flexibility in meeting math requirements, to name some of the big ones included in this year’s bill. 

The big questions we’re asking — and watching out for — are how are these changes implemented across the state, and how are we measuring the impact on student outcomes? Implementation will require a big lift on the part of the Minnesota Department of Education, and the keen eye of local communities to make sure they are seeing what’s intended roll out effectively in their local classrooms.

Then, how do we roll this up and track it across the state? There have been low-key rumblings around this question — linked largely to the state’s “World’s Best Workforce” school accountability system and whether it’s still meeting the moment for what students and families need. 

One lesser-noticed initiative is a pilot in seven charter high schools to test new metrics for benchmarking school performance, exempting them from current academic metrics such as proficiency and graduation, and instead focusing on other measures like access to counselors and participation in certain activities and programs. We’ll be watching closely to see what we can learn from this pilot and how we can make sure students are getting the mix of academic rigor and support services they deserve. Swinging the pendulum too far in either direction does a disservice to kids, and this topic might be ripening for another moment in the spotlight.

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Josh Crosson
Josh Crosson

Josh Crosson is executive director of EdAllies, an education advocacy group focused on the most underserved students. He previously worked at Human Rights Campaign and on Capitol Hill for U.S. Rep. Adam Smith.