Legislators who work on education issues in Minnesota are drawing up their plans to address some of the state’s most urgent problems, including things like student mental health issues, gaps in early childhood education, career and technical education and the state’s persistent education disparities.
There's considerable agreement in Minnesota's divided Legislature on what needs to be fixed in the state’s education system. But Republican and DFL legislators don't always agree on exactly how to solve issues like rising rates of mental health problems and the state’s nation-leading opportunity gap.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, leads the Senate committee focused on Education Policy and Finance:
"To the person, counselors have told me our biggest concern is mental health,” said Nelson. “And of course we know that students have to be mentally well in order to really succeed and fulfill their greatest potential. And we also know that mental health can be addressed perhaps best in our schools.”
In the past Nelson has championed school-linked mental health grants. Lawmakers in the House have also said they want to make mental health in schools a priority. But they have focused more on funding mental health support within the framework of community schools — a model that aims to bring social services into public schools to help students and their families.
Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, leads the House Education Policy Committee. She and others in her party have been championing community schools. They envision them as a full-service hub to address mental heath needs and Minnesota's education opportunity gap:
"I think mental health issues are one of those No. 1 issues that I think everybody realizes we need to start tackling and addressing,” she said. “I think different ways of looking at the opportunity gap, focusing on things that we've seen that work and funding those things that work — full service community schools is one of those things."
Last year lawmakers were focused on passing an education budget. This year, the focus is more on policy. But lawmakers have a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus to work with. Nelson thinks much of that surplus should go back to taxpayers. Specifically, she wants to fully exempt Social Security income from state taxes. But if there's any surplus money available for education, she wants that money to go to the youngest learners.
"Some of this $1.3 billion is one-time money,” she said. “And a place for one-time money is only, I believe, with one-time expenses. And increasing the early childhood scholarships is one place for that one-time money. So I'm very hopeful."
Nelson also wants to focus on the youngest learners. She says she's pushing for kindergarten readiness assessments to help refine early childhood programs. And she's zeroing in on early literacy and reading strategies. She wants to make sure Minnesota's teacher prep and professional development programs are in line with what research says is the best way to teach students to read.
Democrats are also coming up with ideas for policy, as well as that projected surplus money.
"Last session the emphasis was on trying to stabilize school finance,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, who leads the House Education Finance Committee. ”A key part of that was a significant investment in special education funding. We've got a similar pattern of underfunding of English language learner services, and this is a need across the state, so that certainly would be a priority."
Davnie also thinks there's room to support mental health in schools and career-technical education.
Other DFL policy priorities focus on strategies to close Minnesota's nation-leading education opportunity gap. Youakim said that effort would include “once again looking at policies that help us get more teachers of color into the classroom, ones that help us retain our teachers, looking at non-exclusionary discipline policies, to make sure that kids are actually staying in the classroom to learn, working with our students that are English language learners."
Lawmakers reconvene in February. Both Republicans and Democrats say there's much to get done before May.