Senate Republican education bill will help students recover from COVID-19; strengthen and revitalize education by focusing on student literacy, mental health, and parent choice

The Senate’s Education Finance and Policy Committee today approved a 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.

“We’ve been doing virtually the same thing for the past four decades in education, with little to show for it besides an achievement gap that is among the worst in the nation and mediocre student reading and math proficiency,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), chairman of the committee. “We can do much better. Every dollar, every word of this bill is focused on empowering parents and improving outcomes for all kids across this state.”

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.

“Senate Republicans have made sure schools are fully funded every year we’ve had the majority, and this year will be no different,” said Sen. Chamberlain. “Between the huge influx of federal funding and state resources, total education spending will once again surpass record levels.”

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 tuition and fees at a different school, tutoring, online learning, educational therapies or mental health treatment, postsecondary costs, or other education expenses. It empowers parents and has vastly improved outcomes for kids. According to a 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 stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which provides teachers with the skills needed to master the fundamentals of reading instruction. Those fundamentals include phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and language. LETRS has become the consensus approach to training educators on how to properly teach reading to young students, particularly students with dyslexia. It is backed by 30 years of scientific research with over a decade of proven success. Ohio, Mississippi, and Alabama are all currently using LETRS as part of 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.

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
  • Allows school districts, rather than the commissioner of MDE, to approve “flexible learning year” schedules
  • Clarifies hours 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
  • Permits local school districts to offer a full distance learning option to their students at any time