Minnesota was once an innovator in education policy. Now it has been surpassed by other states, including Indiana, that have embraced modernized personnel policies.

Minnesota was one of the first states, if not the first, to offer a tax credit/deduction for educational expenses, as modest as it is. Even more significantly, it had the nation’s first charter-school law, and is in many ways still a national leader on charter schools.

The education omnibus bill would have let Minnesota adopt some reforms adopted in other states over the last decade. But Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed HF 934. He wanted a clean funding bill with no policy changes. No wonder; he doesn’t like many of the changes included in the bill, which as I mentioned previously include:

  • Grading schools on an A-F scale, based on student test scores;
  • Eliminates tenure in favor of five-year renewable contracts;
  • Calls for the creation of a system for grading teachers and principals on effectiveness
  • A no-strikes rule for teachers
  • Vouchers for many students in St. Paul and Minneapolis

Reforms in Indiana

Most of these ideas in the education bill came from elsewhere, especially Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush championed education reform during his two terms in office. (In fact, he’s still working on education reform through the Foundation for Education Excellence, an organization he started. The foundation pushed for many of the the reforms that made it into HF 934.) Florida has made tremendous gains over the years; for example, its fourth-grade Hispanic students now score as well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as all of Minnesota’s fourth-grade students.)

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “At least a dozen states enacted legislation during the 2010 legislative sessions to significantly reform educator evaluations and tenure.” I’ll have to report on what went down in 2011 another time.

Following in the footsteps of Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature is Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana Legislature. Daniels outlined his agenda at a speech (PDF) at the American Enterprise Institute. Indiana, he said, addressed four major “buckets” of education reform:

  • Teacher quality
  • Freedom to lead / administrative flexibility
  • Options for families
  • Options for children

Teacher quality: “Teachers will be evaluated once a year, with an eye towards student growth. “Hiring, promotion, salary – everything will now be based on performance and not seniority and not paper credentials.”

Schools: Schools will be graded on a scale of A-F.

Teacher certification: Teachers will have to get subject-matter expertise for certification.

Bargaining — will be limited to wages and benefits, so principals won’t be limited by contract provisions that, for example, say that teachers can be observed in the classroom only five days’ notice. Also, contracts can be only as long as the state budget cycle–two years,

Governance — move school board elections from the spring (when nobody votes) to the fall.

Charter schools get a boost by laws that make it easier for them to claim buildings that public school districts have stopped using, and by letting private (in addition to public) colleges serve as authorizers.

Vouchers — now open to about 60 percent of the state’s population, though interestingly enough, Daniels says he expect five percent of the state’s students, at most, will use vouchers to attend private schools.

College scholarships: Students who graduate early get money for college scholarships. Daniels quips, “we will give them money that we’re going to spend on an otherwise fun-filled cruise through senior year.” [As a former high-achieving high school student, I can confirm that cruising happens.]

The Minnesota Veto

In his veto message (PDF), Gov. Dayton singled out several of the reforms of HF934, including A-F grades for schools, changes to the collective bargaining process, putting into place new means of evaluating teachers, and a voucher program. He also cited restrictions on the use of the Common Core Standards (an initiative the Minnesota Free Market Institute has opposed). Curiously, he specifically called out voucher programs as “an experiment that has not worked in other states,” an argument that is false (PDF). He added, “Until our public schools are funded at adequate and sustainable levels, a diversion of  public dollars to private schools is unwise.” That hints that perhaps, maybe, someday, vouchers will be permissible–until you realize that it’s highly unlikely the government-education industry as we know it will ever say “We’ve got enough money, thank you very much.” By the way, here’s Education Minnesota on the veto. As you might expect, it approved.

All in all, the omnibus bill was a good effort by the Legislature to look at and adopt measures that have proven useful and popular (at least among parents) elsewhere. It’s unfortunate for us all, especially for school children, that Gov. Dayton chose to veto it all. How much of it will be revived? I have no idea, but like George F. Will, I prefer to be a pessimist on the grounds that if things turn out the way  you hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised, rather than dwell on the negative.

UPDATE, June 7

I forgot to mention the one significant education bill that was signed into law: SF40 / HF63 on the subject of alternative certification for teachers. It’s a solid reform, though a modest one. I will have more to say about it in another post. The Senate research office has a summary of the law.