Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reform agenda for divided government

School board members across the state are facing next year's legislative session with a great sense of anticipation and apprehension. Once again, we face divided government. The voters have handed the legislature to the Republicans and the Governor's mansion to Democrat Mark Dayton. (The chances that a recount can overturn a nearly 9000 vote margin are slim to none). Republicans have promised significant reforms in education, but what does that mean? Dayton arrives at the Governor's mansion independent of traditional constraints, because he was not the party-candidate. The sense of anticipation arises from the hope that Dayton and the Republicans might join forces and develop an agenda of proven reforms--reforms that have actually worked in the real world. The sense of apprehension is that partisan gridlock and partisan ideology might bring us gridlock, and worse, a few scatterbrained faddish reforms designed to help each party run against the other in the next elections.

There are all sorts of "reform" ideas that the Dayton crowd and the republican legislative crowd might advance that would be red-meat to their MSNBC and FOX watching zealots. Many of these reforms actually have very little basis in proven results. Few of them show up in the growing literature on what actually works in transforming schools. Many of them are veto bait that, whatever their merits, promise to head us down the path toward gridlock.

In the next few weeks, as time permits, I'm going to advance some reform ideas that should be passed and signed by the legislature in bipartisan fashion. I'm going to suggest that they are ideas that will make governance and operations of school districts vastly easier to operate, and which will translate into real benefits in the classroom for kids. And, from time to time, I'm going to attack some reform ideas that have been advanced as magic bullets, but which really have no sound research basis to support them, and I'm going to argue that its time for the Dayton people and the Republican legislative leadership to roll up their sleeves and work together to pass a courageous package of reforms that actually work for schools. Those of you who think that we should can tenure completely, for example, are going to find me skeptical that this would result in significant improvements that warrant deadlocking the legislature and Governor, which would most certainly be the result.

Here are some of the reforms that I think should pass, and can pass, that would make a significant positive difference for education:

  • Eliminate the additional state mandates for special education that force local districts to spend significantly more on special education than required by federal law. In our District, that would reduce our expenses by about one million of unfunded dollars per year. Listen: the Republicans have campaigned on eliminating unfunded mandates. If they can't enact this reform early in the session, then they didn't mean what they said.
  • Fully fund the balance of the unfunded special education mandate. It is fundamentally unfair, and I believe unconstitutional, for the legislature to force some school districts to spend vastly more to carry a statewide responsibility, than other school districts. Combine this initiative with a rigorous program of scrutiny to assure that local districts are spending their special education funds appropriately. Until now, the State Department has exerted supervision of local districts with largely push them to spend more, rather than spend efficiently.
  • Eliminate the bargaining penalty.
  • Prohibit collective bargaining contracts from containing automatic compensation increases that occur beyond the expiration of the duration of the contract. This feature in many school district contracts, places management in the position of having agreed, before bargaining, to increases significantly beyond the amount of funding increases coming from the legislature.
  • Grant management the power to implement the Pawlenty quality compensation reforms in return for the additional funding. I've said in the past, and I'll say again, in my opinion, the compensation part of quality compensation is the least important of the reforms found in quality compensation.
  • Prohibit strikes designed to force school boards to increase compensation at a rate faster than reimbursed by state funding. Public education will not be viable if school districts are forced to increase class size and cut programs in order to fund compensation increases. In tandem with this, develop a coherent legislative strategy to provide school districts with sufficient funds to attract and retain quality professional teachers.
  • Develop financial incentives to promote strategies that are proven to work in closing the achievement gap.
  • Transform professional staff development for teachers away from the existing program of university or quasi-university seminar education, toward internal professional staff development that is focused on implementing school and district improvement plans. Stop granting lane advancement for taking a course at the local community college, and grant lane credit for becoming a teacher leader who implements a great science program, a great math program with proven results in a local school.
Some of you may find these reforms too aggressive. Some may feel that they don't go far enough. In future posts, I'll discuss my rationale for these ideas, and discuss reform ideas that have been advanced by others.

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