Newman: Senate approves bill that strengthens and revitalizes education by focusing on student literacy, mental health, and parent choice

The Minnesota Senate today approved a bipartisan bill that fully funds K-12 schools and transforms the way the state delivers education. Rather than continuing the status quo, the Republican bill emphasizes approaches with a track record of improving student performance in other states, like student literacy, mental health, and empowering parents.

“The governor’s school closures have been incredibly harmful to students,” said Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson). “Our priority is supporting students, families, and educators in the recovery process. These bills will provide schools with the resources they need while focusing on the fundamentals that will get us back on track as soon as possible.”

Schools will receive a significant boost in funding of nearly $3.5 billion from combined state and federal resources. Total state education aid will reach a record of $20.6 billion for the upcoming two school years under the Republican proposal — approximately 42% of the state’s general fund budget. When combined with local levies, schools will have more than $29 billion in revenue for the next budget cycle.

Choice for parents and families

The marquee item in the bill is the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which will empower parents with more flexibility and control over their child’s education. With ESAs, the state funds kids, not systems: If a parent chooses to withdraw their child from public school, the state would deposit that child’s share of state education assistance into a restricted, government-authorized savings account the parent could use for approved education-related expenses, including tuition and fees at a different school, online learning, instructional material, and more. ESAs empower parents and have vastly improved outcomes for kids. A March 2021 poll conducted by Morning Consult found 69 percent of all Minnesotans and 75 percent of all parents nationwide support ESAs. According to a 2021 survey from Beck Research, 74% of African Americans, 71% of Latinos, and 65% of all voters back the concept of school choice.

Improving literacy

The bill continues the bipartisan focus on early literacy by expanding the successful LETRS teacher training program. LETRS has become the consensus approach to training educators on how to properly teach reading to young students, particularly students with dyslexia. Ohio, Mississippi, and Alabama are all currently using LETRS as part of successful efforts to improve reading outcomes.

Teachers of color

The Senate is addressing a longstanding problem by providing pathways to get more teachers of color into the classrooms through a number of programs, including Teachers of Color, Black Men Teach, and teacher mentorship grants. Research shows that hiring more teachers of color improves the performance of students of color. The benefits include stronger reading and math scores, higher graduation rates, more interest in higher education, and fewer disciplinary issues. Students have reported feeling motivated by having teachers of color as role models, as well as a stronger sense of belonging.

Mental health support

The Republican education bill prioritizes the bipartisan issue of mental health support, including a $1.5 million grant to the organization Live More, Screen Less to address the effects of social media and screen time overuse and misuse on student mental health and $3.8 million for youth counseling at the elementary school level. The bill also includes funding for suicide prevention training for teachers and allows schools to use school safety funding for student mental health.

Recovering from COVID-19

The bill includes several provisions aimed at supporting kids, families, and teachers as they attempt to recover from learning loss suffered during Gov. Walz’s COVID-19-related school closures. The bill would give students an opportunity to regain lost ground by pausing the creation and implementation of new educational standards, address teacher shortages by opening the door to more qualified substitutes, and ease budget pressures by granting local schools more flexibility.

The bill also provides $60 million in one-time Minnesota Classroom Support Aid to allow our schools to recover from the classroom shut-down and to fully return to in-person learning.

In addition, the bill would prevent future learning loss by removing the governor’s authority to use his or her emergency powers to close schools statewide.

Empowering local schools

The bill also empowers local schools. It expands and clarifies schools’ ability to offer for-credit instruction during whatever hours work best for students. The bill expands the definition of student instruction to include all learning opportunities, such as blended learning, distance learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, service learning, supervised internships, and in-person learning in a school building. The bill allows local school districts to offer a full distance learning option to their students at any time; allows school districts to approve “flexible learning year” schedules; and grants local school boards the authority to exercise these freedoms without first needing approval from a state bureaucracy.

Other notable items:

  • Provides $54 million for safe schools funding over the next two budget cycles
  • Provides $23 million in the 2022 school year for referendum equalization, which provides fair school funding for districts with less property wealth
  • Prohibits “lunch shaming” or other penalties when payment for school means is overdue
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