With the end of the 2016 legislative session only a few weeks away, the session is heating up. Supplemental budget proposals will be finalized soon, bills are leaving committees to be heard on the floor, and the process of negotiating an end to the session has begun in earnest.
While Republican and Democratic Party leaders can and will get into partisan battles during these negotiations, members of the Minnesota Senate’s Purple Caucus have been working hard to hammer out points of unity. As a representative of a very politically diverse district, I am proud to be a part of that work as a member of the caucus. The Purple Caucus includes both parties, with Senators Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) and Roger Reinert (DFL-Duluth) acting as co-chairs.
When I teach my students about American politics, I tell them that parties have important roles to play in our political system, but it’s important to keep in mind the larger goals of public service. A bipartisan caucus can be a great opportunity for members of opposing political parties to engage on issues they all care about.
Members of the Purple Caucus do just that, and in this case, our unifying factor is our pride in our state. (Senator Reinert may have named the caucus after joint military exercises involving blended “Purple Units,” but as a Vikings fan, I like to think it extends to our NFL team as well.) The Purple Caucus meets regularly to talk about positions we have in common, and have outlined four principles that we will speak up for as the session draws to a close.
First, Minnesotans expect the 2016 legislature to pass a Transportation Finance Bill, a Tax Bill, and a Bonding Bill. The transportation and tax bills are still pending from last year, when the session ended before either bill was passed. I believe that sustainable transportation funding is critical to our state’s economic development, and will save taxpayers money in the long run. A tax bill with carefully targeted middle-class and property tax relief will give some money back to Minnesotans, without busting the budget in future years.
The Purple Caucus also supports the passage of both a Bonding Bill and a Transportation Finance Bill, and that roads, bridges, and transit should not be funded through borrowing in the Bonding Bill. Bonding is an important tool that the state uses to upgrade, repair, or build new state infrastructure, and leaning on this borrowing to fund roads and bridges would crowd out needed investments in other areas. I am concerned that overly-politicizing the state’s bonding by including individual transportation projects would jeopardize their eventual completion and, furthermore, be bad for our long-term fiscal health.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Purple Caucus has called for increased transparency in the legislative process. The end of last year’s legislative session was disappointing to everyone, with closed-door meetings and negotiations often locking out not only the public, but even elected officials not part of their party leadership. We believe that all legislators and the public should be included in the final decision-making process.
The Purple Caucus also encourages like-minded members of the Minnesota House to join our efforts, prioritizing our common ground as we finish this session. We may not always be successful, and there are still major differences between our parties, but acknowledging and fighting for our shared goals will make our state a better place for everyone. The Purple Caucus adheres to the following principles, as developed by the Speak Your Peace Civility Project: pay attention; be inclusive; not gossip; show respect; be agreeable; apologize; give constructive criticism; and take responsibility.
Teacher shortages in Minnesota have reached critical levels, and there’s no easy fix. The issue is not confined to just one part of the system; unsustainable trends in teacher recruitment, licensure areas, and increased retirements have worked together to create a school environment in which students either do not have the right teachers in the classroom or schools can’t find enough applicants for the positions they need to fill. This happens most frequently in rural communities, and if continued, will badly damage Minnesota’s ability to provide a strong education for students no matter where they live in the state.
80 percent of school administrators statewide have reported that it was either “difficult” or “very difficult” to fill vacant positions for the current school year. Seven percent of educators are teaching outside their licensure area because their districts can’t find enough candidates to fill necessary positions, and another ten percent of Minnesota teachers left the profession in 2012-13. After working with rural school districts and stakeholders, I have put together a bill to address the many challenges faced by our schools as they try to find and keep enough educators in the classroom.
Thankfully, just because it’s not an easy fix doesn’t mean it can’t be a bipartisan bill. The Teacher Shortage Act has already earned strong support from both parties as it passed the Minnesota Senate’s Education Policy Committee this week on a unanimous vote. The House author, Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), and I have had many disagreements about what is best for our kids in the past, but attracting and keeping great teachers is something we can both support. I’m particularly pleased that in this contentious political atmosphere, we have been able to bring Democrats, Republicans, teachers, and administrators to the table to begin working to find the best possible solution for our kids.
The Teacher Shortage Act is comprised of seven separate initiatives designed to reduce the teacher shortage in Minnesota. A statewide teacher job board for teacher candidates will help new educators find open positions and districts, particularly in rural communities where it has been more difficult to
advertise. As they find open positions, grants will be made available to student teachers who are willing to work in shortage areas like math, science, and special education.
To attract students to the profession in the first place, an expansion of the existing Teacher Shortage Loan Forgiveness program for teachers in shortage areas or communities in need will make financing a teacher education more possible. Once they are in a teaching position, bringing Teacher Evaluation and Development funding statewide to provide rural teachers with better training, support, and development so they are more likely to stay in the classroom long term.
The Teacher Shortage Act also broadens the scope of Minnesota’s science licensure, in order to make licenses better reflect both need and usage in our classrooms, and creates a “Grow Your Own” pathway to licensure for local paraprofessionals who want to become licensed teachers in the districts they already teach. We have also requested a Special Education Educator Programs Report, in which MnSCU will supply a report on special education teacher programs and graduation statistics to help assess shortages in that field.
This is a landmark, bipartisan piece of legislation for our schools and our kids. It still has far to go before it lands on the Governor’s desk for a signature, but we have taken the first steps in the process of attracting the best teacher candidates and keeping them in Minnesota classrooms where they belong.
With the end of this year’s legislative session fast approaching, the final touches on our state’s two-year budget are swiftly coming to a conclusion. While the Governor, Senate, and House leaders have been negotiating a high-level agreement, other elected officials (including myself) have been working harder than ever to promote the policies we have championed throughout the five month session.
It is no secret that my major legislative focus has been on education. As I’ve written before, preparing the youngest Minnesotans for a successful life after high school is one of the most important things we can do as a state. By the time of this printing, I expect the House and the Senate to be deep in the final stages of assembling our final education omnibus bills. The Senate has come to the table with a set of proposals that take steps to strengthen Minnesota’s students and economy for decades.
Of course, any final deal will incorporate House proposals put forward by the Republican and Democratic Representatives, as well as proposals from Senators of both parties. Many of the news stories reporting on the end of session focus on points of strong disagreement, but despite inevitable conflict on some issues, the two parties agree on much of what must be done for Minnesota schools. Expanding the state’s successful concurrent enrollment program for high school students to earn college credits is just one example. Plans to reduce the number of tests we give to students and to further strengthen teacher development and evaluation also find wide bipartisan support, and I expect these kinds of initiatives to be signed into law.
In other cases, the difference between the House and Senate come down to a matter of scale. While everyone at the table wants to increase the funding formula for schools, how much we allocate to that formula has been a long-standing discussion. Everything from a .5% increase to a 1% boost has been officially proposed, with some Senators joining me to push for a 2% or 3% increase that would keep our schools from losing staff and programs to inflation. Similarly, the facilities funding bill I have brought forward might receive a minimal amount of funding, or could be scaled-up to give our school districts significant resources to fix and modernize our aging infrastructure.
As a member of the conference committee tasked with putting together the education finance and policy bills, I will work hard to ensure that our students and our schools get the support they need and deserve. While it is too early to say for certain what will happen, I am confident that Minnesota’s elected officials will settle on a resolution that will be good news for students, families, and schools across our state.
As the session ends, I will be spending more of my time in the district again to share what the Legislature has accomplished this year and to hear your feedback. If you have questions about anything the Senate has done or thoughts on how we can keep moving Minnesota forward, please contact me. I can only be an effective representative for you if I hear your thoughts and concerns, and I promise to remain accessible in the legislative “off-season.” Thank you for following the political ups and downs of the last several months. It has been an honor to serve you in the Minnesota Senate.
Education at Forefront of Legislative Session
As a long-time teacher and as a parent, education is often at the forefront of my mind. As a legislator, my energies can become scattered between the Avian Flu outbreak, funding for nursing homes, and the hundreds of bills that come across my desk, but the legislature’s work on education is always at the core of why and how I serve.
This Wednesday, the legislature took up two important bills that will shape how our schools are financed and managed. The Education Policy and Finance Omnibus bills both passed the Senate after healthy discussion, and I am confident that both bills make important steps toward making our schools the strongest in the nation.
As I have mentioned in the past, my major initiative to better finance maintenance needs for our crumbling school buildings in Minnesota is included in this bill. Another appropriation will address the state’s shamefully low number of counselors and support staff in Minnesota schools, and funding for career and technical education will help to bridge the gap between high school and the workforce.
One of the big themes this session is the importance of early childhood education, and I’m pleased to report that the Senate has earmarked $65 million to significantly expand our state’s school readiness model. This will allow Minnesota to increase its support of publicly funded pre-school programs, allowing parents more flexibility while giving our youngest learners a stronger start. Programs like these are proven to reduce our achievement gap and help at-risk Minnesotans prepare for Kindergarten.
There is still more we must do. We must address the inadequate level of funding currently earmarked for the general fund formula. I have held discussions with leadership and my committee members to share concerns that we are not doing enough for students. A 1% increase over each of the next two years doesn’t even match inflation, so my colleagues and I will continue to work with Governor Dayton and others to ensure our schools don’t have to cut staff and programs while the state enjoys a budget surplus. The final budget number has yet to be determined, but unfortunately the House proposal contains an even lower funding level than the already-modest Senate version. House provisions that include tax cuts for the wealthy and one-time funding for transportation threatens to eat away at available general fund dollars. We will have to fight hard to ensure our schools remain strong.
Despite some inevitable disagreement, there was strong bipartisan agreement among Senators on many provisions. The Education Omnibus Policy bill passed with an overwhelming 53-13 vote, and will bring reforms to teacher licensure, raise student accountability, and reduce the number of tests that burden students and get in the way of actual teaching time.
I will be appointed to the Education Conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills. It is my goal to work with them and build on the strong bills passed by the Senate this week. Together we must continue to make good progress toward our shared goal of strong schools and successful students.