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The 6 education stories to watch in 2017

Original photo: Creative Commons/alamosbasement

When it comes to education issues, the term “community engagement” gets tossed around a lot — and rightfully so. In order for local policy makers and educators to make greater strides toward closing the achievement gap they need to hear from those who are too often left out of these conversations. Parents, students and community members are best positioned to bring attention to inequities that exist within the current education system, whether it be disparities in disciplinary actions or in who is encouraged to enroll in dual-enrollment courses for college credit.

While state and district education leaders have facilitated lots of opportunities for community input this past year, it’s still very much an insider’s game. It’s easy to get lost in the jargon, overwhelmed by the politics, or simply lost in the process as things slog along. So, in the interest of keeping everyone up to speed — policy wonks and concerned parents alike — here’s a list of things to keep tabs on as they continue to evolve in 2017.

1. The fate of ESSA

In an effort to be proactive, the Minnesota Department of Education had been on track to submit a draft version of it’s new federally mandated accountability plan, the Every Student Succeeds Act, by March. Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, along with staff, had conducted a fairly extensive series of meetings in an attempt to capture input from a diverse group of people. But education advocates who’d been pushing for an extended deadline to give minority groups more time to digest the new law and offer input may be pleased to hear they now have until September 2017 to do so. The feds pushed back the timeline, giving states more time to solicit community feedback and submit a draft plan. If ESSA survives once President-elect Donald Trump takes office, states will be expected to begin identifying low-performing schools for supports and improvements during the 2018-19 school year.

2. Momentum around school choice

Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has put the longstanding school-choice debate front and center in the national education conversation. How this will impact Minnesotans, however, remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that DeVos’ preferred brand of school choice — one that involves funneling taxpayer money to private religious schools through the use of vouchers and lax accountability measures for charter schools — will find much traction locally. Minnesota, however, has historically been a leader on a number of choice-related education initiatives, including chartering and the adoption of PSEO programs. Stay tuned to see which brand of school choice gains popularity. Here, the resegregation of urban schools — and the educational disparities this shift reinforces — has left some calling for more intentional efforts to integrate public schools. Many charter advocates are pushing back on this sentiment, defending charters that are successfully serving minority students through a culturally affirming learning environment.

3. Teacher shortage and licensure

Schools across the state are struggling to find licensed teachers, especially in the areas of special education, math and science. In order to address these shortages, lawmakers have recognized the need to fix the state’s “broken” teacher licensure system, which is currently managed by the state Department of Education and the state Board of Teaching. The debacle has put both departments under intense public scrutiny this past year; after legislative direction on how to streamline the teacher licensure system, it’s unlikely anyone will be allowed to kick the can any further down the road. On a related note, schools are struggling to recruit and retain teachers of color to teach a student body that’s becoming more and more diverse. Expect programs like the Minneapolis Residency Program, which offers non-licensed educators an alternative pathway to licensure, to continue to grow in popularity. And Minnesota’s still not off the hook for its extreme shortage of student support staff, which includes one of the poorest student-to-school counselor ratios in the nation.

4. Suspension as a default or a last resort?

Following a wave of student-on-teacher assaults that spilled into 2016, student discipline and school safety concerns got lots of attention during the last legislative session. A number of legislators proposed bills detailing how disciplinary measures like suspension and expulsion should be used. In general, Republican officials seem to favor a zero-tolerance policy, while their DFL counterparts have voiced a preference for a more nuanced protocol that involves behavior interventions and supports. Over the summer, a number of task forces convened to tackle this issue, which also encompasses confronting the racial disparities captured in discipline data. It will be interesting to see what recommendations come out of the various task forces convened by the state Legislature, Ramsey County and various school districts; and how much sway any of these recommendations actually have in shaping policy in a GOP-dominated Legislature.

5. New supes in the Twin Cities

The new superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools district, Ed Graff, has enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon period since taking the reins in July. A proponent of things like social-emotional learning and having honest conversations about the inequities that currently exist within the district, he’s been well-received so far. But once he digs in and begins challenging the status quo — a necessary part of  addressing the inequities that contribute to the stubborn achievement gap — he’s likely to encounter some criticism. It will be interesting to see how he gets along with the newly elected board members — who are bound to shift board dynamics — and how he handles conflicts that play out publicly. In St. Paul, the search for a new permanent superintendent will continue through the remainder of the school year, with lots of opportunities for community input along the way. The district is at a critical juncture in terms of how it chooses to move forward with much of the equity work former superintendent Valeria Silva began before being ousted by the new board majority at the start of the year.

6. Expansion of early ed

This year Gov. Mark Dayton secured $25 million to expand voluntary prekindergarten options across the state. The funds were distributed among 74 school districts and charter schools, targeting those serving a high number of low-income students. While the projected use of these funds is often framed in the number of pre-K seats it could create — 3,302 seats this time around — some of these funds actually went toward improving the quality of existing programs. Looking forward, Dayton has his sights set on further expanding his universal pre-K program in 2017. While there’s strong bipartisan support for early education, not everyone agrees on how, exactly, to go about supporting it. He’ll continue to face lots of push back from legislators and early learning advocates who contend these funds should be allocated as targeted scholarships that can reach the most impoverished families.