Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Pause in the Action. The next week will be the last quiet one for awhile, as everything seems to wind down for the holiday season. Rest assured, things will be picking up right after the New Year arrives with the Legislature convening on Tuesday, January 6, 2009, at high noon (Gary Cooper will not be there).

I am sure you have been reading the same news reports (and variegated tea-leaves) that I have and this promises to be one of the ugliest sessions since the sessions (and multiple special sessions) of 1981 and 1982. It was session upon session back then, as every time Governor Quie and the Legislature would balance the budget, the next revenue projection would come around and announce once again that the state was in a hole. Governors have considerably more power now and budget reserves have been created (although they are now pretty much depleted) to help avoid the constant ducking in for special sessions, but I fully anticipate that we are going to have multiple sessions in 2009, especially given the considerable task of re-designing a number of state programs in an attempt to keep long-term costs under control.
There was one ominous--and almost totally ignored--line in the Governor's press conference relating to the mega-deficit we are now facing. That line went something like "I will be proposing some education reform during the 2009 session." Given the entirety of the budget picture, it isn't surprising that no one in the media picked up on it, but it is something we are going to have to be prepared for in 2009.

So here's to a relaxing holiday season with friends and family. In that vein, please accept the warmest in holiday wishes from the three cats that live in the Lundell basement. From the left they are Thater Chip, Button, and Puffy. Thater and Puffy each go 20+ pounds and Button hits the scale at around 13. They are just about the friendliest cats on terra firma and they love people just about as much as they love their food dish. So, from everyone in the Lundell household (including the two cats that outweigh Ol' St. Nick himself), have a pleasant and safe holiday season.
Just a Little Clean-Up. Representative Linda Slocum (DFL-Minneapolis) and Senator Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury) had their third in a series of four working group meetings related to charter schools last week. As with the second meeting, testimony was spirited and surrounded the question "how are charter schools really doing?" The working group will hold one more meeting in early January before drafting legislation. It is expected that legislation will be introduced from several quarters--including that of strong charter school supporters--to tighten up rules pertaining to charter school sponsors and provide training for groups and school districts interested in sponsoring a charter school.
In the school reform arena, I had breakfast with former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Bob Wedl and former MASA Executive Director John Maahs this week and we discussed their proposal to allow sites within a school district to basically become charter schools. The design is similar to that of relating to area learning centers and alternative programs as districts would get to keep a portion of the general education revenue associated with a student for district purposes. It will be interesting to see if proposals moving in this direction will have any legs given the budget deficit.
If any of you are interested in what Bob is proposing, he'd love to talk with you. He can be reached at robert_wedl@yahoo.com.
And last but not least, the St. Paul Conservatory, a charter school headed up by former Northfield superintendent Dr. Terry Tofte, was featured in Monday's Minneapolis StarTribune. Hey Terry, we miss you and don't be a stranger.
While we're citing the StarTribune, yours truly was quoted in this story by Norm Draper outlining the cuts being faced by metropolitan-area school districts as they prepare for next year. One thing we need to do, and we will be getting a survey ready for the legislative kick-off on January 22, is to gauge the cuts in SEE member districts. Look for that survey early in the new year.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thank You SCRED. I want to thank the staff at the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED) for inviting me to their annual meeting. The meeting was at Grand Casino-Hinckley (don't worry, I didn't make a massive cash withdrawl and blow the entire SEE budget on slots) and was very informative. Four of the five SCRED members are also SEE members (Hinckley-Finlayson, Pine City, Rush City, and Chisago Lakes) and SCRED invited other SEE members Braham, Cambridge-Isanti, Mora, and North Branch to attend the meeting as well. It was like a SEE regional meeting where I didn't talk (and many were thankful for that).

First-year SCRED Executive Director Dr. Kim Gibbons gave a very informative presentation on Response-to-Intervention (RtI) and how SCRED's long history with RtI has fared. For those of you who don't know, SCRED was "RtI before RtI was cool" (paraphrasing Barbara Mandrell here) and has been working to incorporate greater use of curriculum-based measurement and response to identified learning issues with research-based intervention for over 20 years. It hasn't always been easy, as they have tussled with the Minnesota Department of Education on the use of RtI, but they appear to be winning the day as RtI is now becoming a nationally-recognized success at improving learning.

SCRED is lucky to have Dr. Gibbons at the helm. She has a national reputation as a leader on RtI and her work is helping school districts throughout Minnesota understand how this system can improve achievement and, if applied correctly, lower the identification of children with specific learning disabilities. I don't think I need to tell everyone how once a child enters special education they often become a "high cost" student. Special education is extremely important, but for it to be effective, it must be the appropriate placement for the student. RtI helps make certain that children are not being shuffled off to special education simply because there isn't another program to handle their needs.

Dr. Gibbons has provided me with a copy of the Powerpoint of her prensentation to a national leadership conference held this fall in Rochester, MN, and I will pass that on to anyone who is interested.

The rest of the evening was dedicated to discussion with local legislators. Representatives Jeremy Kalin (DFL-North Branch), Rob Eastlund (R-Cambridge), Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson) and Tim Faust (DFL-Mora) and Senator Rick Olseen (DFL-Harris) were in attendance and fielded a number of tough (but politely asked) questions from the crowd of school admininstrators and school board members. In the picture on the right, Hinckley-Finlayson Superintendent Jack Almos is moderating a discussion between (from the left) Representative Bill Hilty, Representative Tim Faust, and Isanti and Pine County school districts.

The universal response--and appropriately so--is that the budget negotiations are going to dictate everything. The deficits, both for the remainder of this fiscal year and for the next biennium, appear to be getting worse given the continuing lay-offs. Given that, the legislators present were extremely reluctant to make any projections on what may happen, good or bad.

The one thing, and I believe it is positive, that was broached was how this may be the optimal time to talk about transforming how government services, including education, are delivered. With the entitlement programs we have in place and the baby boom now just beginning to consume those entitlements, it is going to be difficult for society to continue propping up the status quo.
What we need to be concerned about in SEE is that any transformation of education leads to greater equity. As we know, and I did touch on this informally with a couple of the legislators present, is that while this may be an opportunity to close some funding gaps, the temptation on the part of a number of legislators in an era when state resources are tight will be to let those districts who have higher property wealth "take care of themselves" while everyone else will be left to muddle along. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Charter School Echoes. It didn't take long for the dust to get kicked up after last Tuesday's legislative hearing on charter schools. Sean Kershaw, Executive Director of the Citizen's League, wrote the editorial for the StarTribune (at the link below), weighing in on the issues discussed at the hearing.

Kershaw Commentary: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/35571339.html?elr=KArksc8P:Pc:U0ckkD:aEyKUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aUU.

I want to start my response by saying I don't have any particular problem with the concept of charter schools. In my waning days on legislative staff nearly twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to sit on a couple of working groups that discussed expanding school choice to include the ability of school districts--and back then, it was only school districts in the discussion--to create charter schools. Through these discussions, I developed a healthy respect for many of those who advocate for charter schools that remains to this day.

But what is troubling in this whole episode is a reluctance on the part of charter school proponents to recognize that Myron Orfield, the Director of the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Race an Poverty, is more reporting facts than making value judgments about the performance of charter schools and how the enrollment patterns in charter schools are exacerbating racial isolation. Where Orfield appear to make a judgment is in the embrace of current laws pertaining to the desegregation rule.

I am not going to weigh in on that because I can see both sides of the argument. I have never believed that creating and maintaining racial balances will, in and of themselves, promote greater achievement. If it did, all we'd have to do is get out the ol' slide rule and watch the magic happen. And I can understand the frustration of the minority community with a system that sometimes appears to be more intent on developing student ratios than promoting student learning and seek to have more control over their community's education through the establishment of charter schools. The testimony of Minneapolis Councilman Don Samuels, Eric Mahmoud, and former St. Paul Councilman Bill Wilson bore that out and the achievement levels in the schools in which they are directly involved are promising. Unfortunately, many charter schools aren't doing nearly as well and are often rife with management issues.

Where I start to get a little bent out of shape is when people seemingly give charter schools a pass on their achievement scores. The law is clear. It's not like Orfield was at the State Fair handing out "Charter School Criticism on a Stick" in the same way that the Minnesota Department of Education was handing out school scores "on a stick" in 2003. His report simply reported raw data and made similar judgments regarding charter school performance that are made when public school test scores are released and usually accompanied by damning headlines at every daily newspaper in the state.

What is particularly maddening is that charter school supporters tend to pull out the same explanations mainline schools use to explain whatever difficulties they are having. It just seems when the explanations come from public schools, they are viewed as excuses while the same reasons, when cited by a charter school, are met with an understanding nod of the head. There needs to be, and at least Kershaw admits this, a single, meaningful standard of measurement developed that will look at student performance realistically and support further achievement in a dynamic manner as opposed to simply taking a snapshot of student achievement levels on a given day.

Three consecutive administrations have placed a lot of stock in charter schools (less so in the Ventura Administration, but heavily in the Carlson and Pawlenty Administrations) and have promoted them, sometimes at the expense of the mainline public school system. Programs like charter school lease aid have produced some questionable decisions and have cost the state a considerable amount of money. Rules relating to sponsorship of charter schools have been loosened, allowing the establishment of some charter schools that should not have been created and allowing charters to be created without having a formal agreement from the school district in which they are located. Management of some charter schools has been nothing short of atrocious. There can be no excuses when problem like this arise, even from the most ardent charter school supporters. This isn't "poor little charters" being descended upon by critics from the vicious education cartel. It's a matter of following the law and meeting expectations.

There desperately needs to be a truce here. Continuing an "us vs. them" in this area serves no one's, especially the students in all Minnesota schools, district or otherwise, purposes. Charter schools are public schools with public school students, just like those students in area learning centers and alternative programs. In the discussions surrounding measurement of student achievement, there are threads of an agreement beginning to reveal themselves. This could be the opportunity that will, if not eliminate the tension, at least put everyone on the same plane in terms of operation and measurement.

MSBA Delegate Assembly. I forgot my camera, so I didn't get any quality candids of the many SEE board members in attendance at the 2008 MSBA Delegate Assembly. It was nice to see as many of you as I did run into and the discussion of the resolutions was interesting.

There were two positive developments during the proceedings. In her address to the delegates on Sunday evening, Representative Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), chief author of the PS Minnesota bill, announced that increased equalization will be part of the comprehensive funding reform bill she intends to introduce early in the 2009 Legislative Session. HF 4178/SF 3828--the comprehensive funding reform bill introduced in 2008--did not include increased equalization although both authors voiced support for the concept.

The other development was the passage, by the delegates, of a resolution urging support for the comprehensive funding reform bill. While some may view this as a "no-brainer," there are concerns from some regarding elements of the proposed reform and it is very expensive. At any rate, on a vote of 94-12, the delegates voiced (more accurately, punched their support on their voting keypad) support for the bill. Hoo-rah.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

If It's Not One Thing, It's the Same Darn Thing. My cousin Melvin told me that many years ago and I have to say it is one of the more simply profound statements I have heard and sadly fitting when looking at the state budget heading into big-time negative territory for the second time this decade. Yes, that's the SS Minnesota to our right, leaking red ink like there's no tomorrow. Maybe it hit the iceberg of the housing bubble or was attacked by a submarine firing tight-credit torpedos (or maybe I should just stop with the analogies).

At any rate, it was announced today that the revenue shortfall for the remainder of this fiscal year (which ends June 30, 2009) is projected to be $426 million. That's small change, if anything in the hundreds of millions can be described as "small," compared to the projected revenue shortfall for the 2010-2011 biennium estimated to be $4.8 billion, a more than five-fold increase in the shortfall from the $936 million shortfall estimated at the end of session.

The largest portion of the change comes from a $3.3 billion drop in state revenue since the end of session. The remainder of the shortfall comes from a $580 million increase in state expenditures (most of which are in the area of health and human service costs) over the same time period. Add these two numbers to the $936 million end-of-session shortfall and you've got a nice, tidy, $4.8 billion shortfall.

It was a very somber message delivered by Chief State Economist Tom Stinson (pictured speaking) as he outlined the reasons for the downturn in state revenue. According to Global Insights, the firm hired by the State Department of Managment and Budget (formerly the Minnesota Department of Finance now combined with the Minnesota Department of Employee Relations), the recession (yes, it is a recession) began in late 2007 and will likely last at least until late 2009. This basically stunts state revenue growth for an entire year. What makes this particular recession even more puzzling is that given the breadth of the economic crisis and the degree of damage in some sectors, knowing when the turn-around will begin is more difficult to gauge. The only safe assumption at this point (if there is a safe assumption in economics) is that this recession is going to be more severe than those experienced in the early 1990s or shortly after the terrorist attacks in September, 2001.
So, where from here? Needless to say, this is going to be a painful, painful legislative session. The budget story in the StarTribune this morning said as much, as legislators acknowledged that there is no way to "tax our way out of this" and that cuts will have to be made. What further complicates matters is that every reserve or pot of possible one-time money has been tapped over the past six years, so all cushions are gone. One area that will receive a lot of attention is that of health and human services, which continues to grow at a rate well above inflation. It will likely take a combination of state tax increases (if they can get around the Governor), program cuts, and property tax increases to get things to balance. Needless to say, I won't be planning a June vacation.
I don't know what to say about the prospects for education. Given the magnitude of the budget problem, I wouldn't expect any increase outside of the money going onto the formula from the change in the permanent school fund, but at its current amount, that won't even replace the loss of the $51 in one-time money approved last session. There is the possibility that the funding shift could be changed from 90% current year/10% subsequent year to something lower. That generates "balance sheet" money, but raises school district borrowing costs, making it a less-than-optimum option. Further, there is no guarantee that any revenue generated would stay in education.
Harry Truman once said, and I paraphrase, something to the effect, "give me a one-handed economist, because they are always saying 'on the other hand.'" I only wish Tom Stinson and his team would have been able to go to another hand for a rosier synopsis this morning. The only positive about having one hand today is that we didn't need to go to a second hand to count the number of billions we are in the hole. Hopefully, that will hold true as we move through 2009.
Minnesota Managment and Budget Documents: http://www.mmb.state.mn.us/fu-2008-nov

But There was a Demonstration. The small group pictured at the right showed up outside Room 15 of the State Capitol and chanted for higher taxes, especially on those in the upper-income brackets, to avoid making cuts to health and human service programs. In the background, you can see a State Trooper approaching. Right after I took this shot, the Trooper instructed the demonstrators that they could no longer chant or wave their signs and being polite Minnesota protesters, they complied. I honestly don't know how I feel about this. Scandinavian that I am, noisy demonstrations make me a bit uncomfortable--heavens, all those emotions--but in my advancing years, I realize that these people are ticked off and as long as they aren't taking hostages, why not let them scream (well maybe not scream, but shout with vigor) and wave their signs. I'm sure they'll be back during the session. Frankly, I'd be worried about the state of our democracy if they weren't.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Charter School Hearing Kicks Up Some Dust. One of the really great things about my job is that each and every day is different and every now and then you stroll into a legislative hearing and are just flat-out blown away by the passion and insight provided. Such was the case at yesterday's hearing of the House/Senate Charter Schools Working Group. With all of the controversy surrounding charter schools, both in terms of performance and administration, arising in the past few months, the House and Senate Education Policy Committees have convened a working group to study where we sit in terms of this school reform 17 years after Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation in the nation. Shown on the right (from left to right, are working group chairs Senator Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury) and Representative Linda Slocum (DFL-Minneapolis) along with Senator Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake).

The hearing began with a discussion of the Office of the Legislative Auditor's evaluation report on charter schools. The report was presented by its evaluation manager, Judith Randall (pictured at left).

While finding that after adjustments for different demographic and student attendance patterns are considered, differences in achievement between charter schools and regular public school are minimal, the report does make five recommendations. They are as follows: (1) Clarification by the Legislature of roles of the Minnesota Department of Education and charter school sponsors, (2) Implementation of standards for sponsors by the Minnesota Department of Education, (3) Requirement for all charter school board members to receive financial management training, (4) Expansion of conflict-of-interest laws as they relate to charter school boards, and (5) Repeal of the requirement that a majority of a charter school board be teachers.

When the Office of the Legislative Auditor embarked on their effort, many believed the result would be much more hard-hitting. Even if the report does not "blow the roof" off anything, neither does it give charter schools a clean bill-of-health. The report clearly points out the challenges facing charter schools, their sponsors, and the state as it grapples with an education movement where 24,000 Minnesota students receive their education.

Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown responded to the Legislative Auditor's report and informed the working group that the Department will be introducing legislation that will address some of these concerns.

The "polite fireworks" of the day began with a presentation by former State Representative and current University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield's presentation. Orfield (pictured testifying at left flanked by Institute researchers Baris Gumus-Dawes on his left and Tom Luce on his right), who heads the Institute on Race and Poverty at the Law School, provided data and research from a report prepared by the Institute showing that charter school performance lags behind that of the regular public schools and, further, are serving to "re-segregate" inner city and inner-ring suburban schools Orfield has worked for years on issues related to poverty and whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, his methodology is meticulous.

A panel of inner-city charter school leaders--Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, Eric Mahmoud, and for St. Paul City Council member Bill Wilson (pictured in order from right to left)--defended the performance of charter schools, which are primarily comprised of African-American students. The African-American students at each of these schools is out-performing the African-American cohort of student not only in the inner cities, but also in a number of suburban districts. They also defended a number of charter schools that are not doing as well, citing the relative newness of those schools.

It was a commendable performance by all involved in the hearing, as charter school performance, especially as it relates to the performance of minority students can be a difficult subject to discuss. People on both sides of the issue spoke with both expertise and passion as they staked out their respective intellectual territory on the issue.

My take on the issue has less to do with charter schools and more to do with how we measure student performance. It's really too bad that this hearing couldn't have followed the Monday's hearing on assessment. What is clearly needed to clear up performance concerns in both charter and regular schools is a valid "growth" model for judging student performance year-to-year and building-to-building.

As controversial as charter schools have become, I don't foresee a day without them being part of the educational landscape in Minnesota. I can also appreciate the desire of many Minnesota's minority communities to have as much input as they can in the education of their children and how they can somehow feel stunted in these efforts by large school environments. What is needed is greater transparency in how charter schools operate and the encouragement to share more between the charter and regular school frameworks, so that best practices--moving in both directions--can find their way into more classrooms.


Legislative Auditor's Report: http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/ped/2008/charterschools.htm

Institute on Race and Poverty Report: http://www.irpumn.org/website/projects/index.php?strWebAction=project_detail&intProjectID=57

StarTribune Story on Institute on Race and Poverty Report: http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/35109429.html?elr=KArksUUUU

Monday, December 01, 2008

And So It Starts. The beginning of the 2009 Legislative Session is more than a month away, but looking at my December calendar, it looks like it is already arrived. The starting gun went off today as the Senate and House Education Policy Committees held a joint hearing to discuss the high-stakes 11th grade mathematics test and other accountability issues.

The hearing began with an appearance by MDE Commissioner Alice Seagren and MDE Testing and Assessment Director Dirk Mattson describing some of the options being considered by MDE as the 2009 Legislative Session nears. The cause of the furor surrounding the high-stakes test springs from the fact that the passage rate is expected to be less than 50%. Because of the high-stakes (that's education lingo for "no pass/no diploma") nature of the test, it would prevent a significant portion of this year's juniors from receiving a diploma. Needless to say, this would be both alarming and inaccurate.

Several groups then provided their reaction and possible solutions to the problem. Dr. Ric Dressen brought in a team from the Edina School District, which is in the process of designing and approving an alternative path to a diploma for students who fail the high-stakes test. It's quite an comprehensive and rigorous pathway, but when Edina testifies--and they are impressive--it always makes me chuckle a bit. Edina is a well-staffed school district that simply has more people in the position to develop and implement this type of program. Most SEE districts simply don't have the additional people-power to make a change as significant as this one.

Which again leads us to the inevitable discussion of why MDE isn't providing more in terms of leadership on this crucial issue. I imagine as we move forward, we are going to hear all about possible waivers and other devices that will simply avoid the issue as to what the goals of the state's testing initiatives are and how to implement these goals in a way that will provide an accurate and helpful (for students, teachers, and the community-at-large) information about student achievement. In fairness to MDE, after almost two decades of having the stuffings knocked out of them in terms of personnel, they also are lacking the people to deliver the types of services that are helpful to school districts in this realm.

For my own part, I continue to be frustrated by the notion that somehow the subjective can be made transparently objective. What do I mean by that? The value of learning is often subjective. There are certain objective items that all students must know that can be measured very straightforwardly, but the ability to apply knowledge in a meaningful way is subjective to a great extent. Yet, in the wake of NCLB, states try to develop strictly objective criteria and measuring devices to give a snapshot of their progress in meeting, in my estimation for a great number of students, these foggy goals. Not foggy in the sense that the score on the test is not clear, but foggy in the sense that we don't really know if the knowledge being measured is authentic.

This discussion will continue as we head toward session. Senate Education Policy Chair Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood) stated that a working group will be assembled to come up with a legislative response to this issue with the goal of having a bill ready to go early in the session. It would be great to get this taken care of during the first month of session, as the likely budget agony is going to take center stage starting in late January and having important initiatives like this one get gummed up in the budget negotiations would be frustrating. Decisive early action would be a much preferred route.

Now if I Can only Teach Him to Shovel Snow. Sunny has turned one and as a yellow lab, he is turning me into a gray terrier (I'm yapping at him all the time and turning grayer by the day) with his antics, but I will have to admit that he is the smartest dog on the block. Just a couple of weeks ago, I left the rake by the side of the house while I went in the house for a minute or so and when I returned, Sunny, as you can clearly see, was raking for me. What a thoughtful dog!
More Movie Reviews. I ran into Bob Porter at a legislative hearing this summer and he told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to see more movie reviews. My wife and I usually see one movie per weekend and today, I'll report on Baz Luhrmann's epic homage to his homeland "Australia" which opened last weekend.
Kidman! Jackman! Other people! Awesome!
This is truly a fine movie. It hasn't received universal praise from the critics and at times, Luhrmann seems to be trying to tell the entire history of Australia beginning with the Pleistocene epoch in a mere 2 and a half hours making things seem a bit hurried, but it's been a long time since I've seen an "important" movie with less navel gazing and more concentration on broad (sometimes seemingly larger than life) themes.
For SEE members, it also instructive that Northern Australia is clearly a low property wealth part of that continent. So see it if you get a chance during this hectic month.