Education bill with burdensome mandates, contentious policies signed into law

Now that the dust has settled on this whirlwind of a legislative session, it’s time to unpack several key provisions in the education omnibus bill and what they mean for Minnesota students, families, and educators.

Cash infusion

First, the expected news: more education funding. Two years ago, the legislature passed what was then the largest increase to the K-12 education formula in 15 years. But not even a year after the historic spending hike (half a billion dollars), Minnesota’s schools were apparently on the brink of collapse.

Now, with $2.26 billion in new funding for schools — but no accountability for academic achievement — and a new historic education spending budget of $23.2 billion over the next two years (about a third of the total state budget), we will see if these dollars can do what others haven’t done before to boost student achievement.

The largest chunk of the new spending is going toward increases in the main funding formula (per pupil formula) — a 4 percent increase for FY2024, a 2 percent increase for FY2025 and then automatic increases indexed to inflation starting the year after that, with a 2 percent floor and a 3 percent ceiling. So, by 2025 the minimum dollar amount a district will receive to educate a student will be $7,281 per student, up from the current $6,863. From 2002 to 2020, K-12 state revenue per pupil, adjusted for inflation, grew 31 percent, according to the Reason Foundation.

Funding increases for special education ($663 million) and English learner programs ($87 million in the next biennium and $171 million after that) also make up a good chunk of the bill. These dollars are intended to address what’s called cross-subsidies, or the differences between spending and corresponding revenues for these mandated learning services. Based on numbers, gaps do exist between what the districts receive and what they spend. But the reason always seems to be a funding issue, and the spending isn’t often, if ever, questioned.

More money, more mandates

But despite record funding increases, school leaders have voiced concern that the new funding is attached to numerous new mandates (read the more noteworthy ones below). Additionally, school leaders are concerned that the unfunded mandates will drain school budgets and leave school districts treading water financially — from staffing ratios in the labor bill and sick and safe time in the jobs bill to paid family medical leave.

No legislative oversight of academic standards

The Minnesota Department of Education reviews and revises the state’s K-12 academic standards and benchmarks every 10 years, and then they go through rulemaking before implementation. The education omnibus bill removes the legislature’s oversight of future changes to these standards.

Ethnic studies for all schools

American Experiment has written much on efforts to shift our education system away from its traditional focus on excellence and pragmatic instruction to an ideological mission focused on reshaping students’ attitudes and beliefs to advance a political agenda.

The latest vehicle for this is critical social justice ideology, which is laced strategically through ethnic studies. Unlike the importance of elevating the cultures, backgrounds, and contributions of all the people groups who have shaped our great state and country, this version of ethnic studies will inject reductive, racialized thinking into every Minnesota public classroom under innocuous terms.

High schools will have to offer an ethnic studies course by the 2026-27 school year, and elementary and middle schools will have to provide ethnic studies instruction in accordance with state academic standards by the 2027-28 school year. Ethnic studies is to be embedded into all academic standards. Students must be allowed to take a course on this topic to satisfy their social studies requirement and can use the course to fulfill a language arts, arts, math, or science credit if the course meets the applicable standards.

The bill defines ethnic studies in this ideologically-loaded way:

“Ethnic studies” means the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States. Ethnic studies analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be social, cultural, and political forces, and the connection of race to the stratification of other groups, including stratification based on the protected classes.

Ethnic studies curriculum can be integrated into existing curricular opportunities or provided through additional curricular offerings.

School districts and charter schools will have to conduct an ethnic studies school survey as part of a school needs assessment followed by an annual evaluation.

The Minnesota Department of Education will have to hire an unspecified number of ethnic studies staff to oversee and monitor the implementation of ethnic studies in all districts and charter schools.

The Minnesota Department of Education will also have to create an Ethnic Studies Working Group to advise the commissioner of education on an ethnic studies framework. The Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition — a tactical arm of the activist organization Education for Liberation Minnesota — will provide input on who the commissioner should appoint to serve in this group, which will be tasked with identifying or developing instructional resources that school districts and charter schools may use, recommending professional development for educators and staff, and recommending resources and materials.

The St. Paul school district requires students to take ethnic studies before they can graduate and gives us a glimpse into what curriculum could include and focus on in other classrooms. (Read this excellent analysis by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism- Twin Cities to learn more about what this version of ethnic studies teaches students.)

‘Antiracist’ curriculum

Minnesota school boards are tasked with adopting a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan to support and improve teaching and learning. With that comes selecting curriculum that will have to be “rigorous, accurate, antiracist, and culturally sustaining.”

What constitutes “accurate” is not defined. (Consider, for example, school districts that use The 1619 Project curriculum despite many historians calling into question its accuracy.)

“Antiracist” is defined as “actively working to identify and eliminate racism in all forms in order to change policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas and actions.” “Culturally sustaining” is defined as “integrating content and practices that infuse the culture and language of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities who have been and continue to be harmed and erased through the education system.”

To help with improving instruction and selecting curriculum, a school board establishes a district advisory committee.

A district advisory committee “must” recommend to the school board rigorous academic standards, and “strategies to ensure the curriculum is rigorous, accurate, antiracist, culturally sustaining…” “Whenever possible, parents and other community residents must comprise at least two-thirds of advisory committee members.” Ask your school board about serving on this committee.

Additionally, a teacher or principal cannot be disciplined for “incorporating into curriculum contributions of persons in a federally protected class [which include gender identity] or state protect class when the included contribution” aligns with state academic standards and benchmarks.

Remember, under Minnesota Statute 120B.20, “each school district shall have a procedure for a parent” to “review the content of the instructional materials to be provided” to their child and, if the parent “objects to the content, to make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction.”

School boards will also have to plan out how to address “institutional racism,” which is defined as “structures, policies, and practices within and across institutions that produce outcomes that disadvantage those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” The education omnibus bill automatically links racial disparities to racism.

The plan must address issues of institutional racism as defined in section 120B.11, subdivision. 1, in schools that create opportunity and achievement gaps for students, families, and staff who are of color or who are American Indian. Examples of institutional racism experienced by students who are of color or who are American Indian include policies and practices that intentionally or unintentionally result in disparate discipline referrals and suspension, inequitable access to advanced coursework, overrepresentation in lower-level coursework, inequitable participation in cocurricular activities, inequitable parent involvement, and lack of equitable access to racially and ethnically diverse teachers who reflect the racial or ethnic diversity of students because it has not been a priority to hire or retain such teachers.

MTSS framework for school improvement

Training and support in implementing MTSS, which this bill establishes as the state’s “systemic, continuous school improvement framework” for social-emotional, behavioral, developmental, and academic learning, must be offered to all districts and charter schools. “The MTSS framework relies on the understanding and belief that every student can learn and thrive, and it engages an anti-bias and socially just approach to examining policies and practices and ensuring equitable distribution of resources and opportunity.”

No PSEO participation for certain religious colleges

Religious colleges or universities that require a statement of faith from students are now barred from participating in the state’s popular Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which allows eligible high school students to earn college credit at a public or a private institution located in Minnesota. Courses offered have always had to be nonsectarian.

The restrictive language was removed by the Senate on a bipartisan vote — two DFL senators in swing districts voted with Republicans to protect the popular program for religious colleges — but the conference committee ignored this bipartisan amendment and reverted to the original language.

A group of Christian parents has already filed a lawsuit challenging the provision, stating that the “sudden change to the law hurts students who want to attend schools that uphold their religious values — schools that have attracted thousands of Minnesota high school students over the past three and half decades.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently affirmed that a state is not required to subsidize private education, but once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.

No suspension for K-3 students

Several provisions in the bill are aimed at discipline, including banning suspension in kindergarten through 3rd grade for one school day or more with exceptions for students receiving special education services and if “there is an ongoing serious safety threat to the child or others.”

Additionally, schools will be required to use nonexclusionary discpline before beginning dismissal proceedings. “No school shall dismiss any pupil without attempting to use nonexclusionary disciplinary policies and practices before dismissal proceedings or pupil withdrawal agreements, except where it appears that the pupil will create an immediate and substantial danger to self or to surrounding persons or property.”

While the goal should always be to keep students in the classroom so they can have equal opportunities to learn, school leaders have voiced concern that narrowing school district authority to dismiss students for disciplinary reasons will have “significant unintended consequences on individual students, school climate, safety and resources.”

Swapping punitive discipline with nontraditional discipline approaches such as relationship building and addressing the root causes of misbehavior can certainly be powerful levers (I experienced this firsthand while teaching), and are “used by principals every day in Minnesota schools,” testified the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. “But many cases involve issues that warrant the suspension of a student. We believe it is best left to the discretion of school principals when the cases involve racism, sexual harassment, bullying, drug possession, theft, or threats.”

Personal finance class, civics class

Students beginning high school next year (2024-25 school year) will be required to complete a personal finance course in either 10th, 11th or 12th grade in order to graduate. Such a class should help high schoolers “understand the consequences of the immense financial commitments they will be asked to take on and help them figure out what they can handle,” reported Grant Dossetto with KNSI.

Minnesota is the 20th state to require a personal finance class for graduation.

Additionally, students will be required to complete a course in government and citizenship in order to graduate. However, the legislature repealed the civics test requirement, no longer requiring districts to administer such a test. In 2022, 8th grade test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test were largely unchanged compared to scores in 1998, when the assessment was first given.

Local operating referendums

School boards can renew an existing operating referendum (which increases property taxes for local school funding) one time without going to voters. Under current law, operating referendums are valued for up to 10 years, noted the Session Daily. The school board has to hold a meeting on the proposed renewal and allow public testimony, and the renewal has to be identical to the existing one.

But there is concern, though, that the provision has taken away local control from voters and has put the legislature in a position to commandeer the prior vote of property owners. Consider, for example, a person who voted for an existing referendum eight years ago and moved, now the new homeowner who has lived there for a year or so is tied to the previous homeowner’s decision for the next 10 years. Or consider the person who voted for the property tax increase originally because it was expected to be a 10-year referendum, not a 20-year one, and that the school district would then engage in a renewal campaign to explain to that homeowner why the dollars were still needed and what they would be going toward.

Teacher licensure, teacher evaluation

Testing centers in the state that assess a teacher candidate’s general pedagogical knowledge or content-specific knowledge are now required to provide untimed examinations, waive test fees for certain test takers, and provide multiple test attempts.

A continuing contract teacher’s annual evaluation must include a “rubric of performance standards” containing “culturally responsive” (critical social justice) methodologies.

Reading literacy

The Read Act in the education bill has made evidence-based reading instruction a requirement for school districts, teachers, and the teacher preparation programs that prepare teacher candidates for the classroom.

Over 52 percent of Minnesota’s 3rd graders can’t read at grade level as measured by the state’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, and 4th grade reading scores on national assessments are the lowest they have been in 30 years and below the national average.

While many sounded the alarm long ago on Minnesota’s struggle to help a number of students become literate, this statewide overhaul of literacy education to ensure that educators are teaching reading using effective strategies is a landmark investment.

“Evidence-based” instructional strategies must focus on phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension. The bill’s language specifically states that the three-cueing system, an ineffective reading instruction strategy that teaches students to use visual cues when attempting to read an unknown word, is not evidence-based instruction.

The bill states that “foundational reading skills appropriate to each grade level must be mastered in kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2, and grade 3,” but outside of stating that struggling readers in grades 4 and above who do not demonstrate mastery must continue to receive explicit, systematic instruction, there isn’t an obvious policy to ensure foundational reading skills are learned. (For example, at least 19 states have third-grade reading retention laws, often with exceptions for English learners and students with disabilities. Education leaders in Mississippi give a nod to the state’s third-grade reading retention law as a contributor to the state’s significant reading growth in recent years. The state’s policy prioritizes prevention and intervention, with retention as a last resort, according to Kymyona Burk, a senior policy expert at ExcelinEd who previously helped implement Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act.)

Minnesota school districts must adopted a local literacy plan from among three Minnesota Department of Education-approved programs by the 2026-27 school year.

Nearly $75 million in funding was appropriated for teacher training, new reading curriculum, and instructional materials.

Interestingly, despite this literacy push, the definition of the World’s Best Workforce (developed in 2013 to ensure that Minnesota school districts enhance student achievement) no longer includes “striving to have all third-grade students achieve grade-level literacy” as one of its goals.

According to Education Week, Minnesota has joined at least 31 other states that require schools to adopt “evidence-based” reading instruction. As of May 17, Ohio and Oregon lawmakers were considering versions of Minnesota’s legislation, reported the Star Tribune.