Paynesville fourth grader testifies before a House committee

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/8/00.

Rheanne Zimmerman Who can blame Rheanne Zimmerman (pictured here testifying) for being a little nervous prior to testifying before the House K-12 Education Finance Committee on Monday, Feb. 7?

Aside from her drama and music performances, her only experience in public speaking was presenting a card trick for a class project a few weeks ago, a slightly less imposing audience than 60 people in a chamber at the state capitol. After all, Zimmerman is a fourth grader.

Zimmerman testified in support of a bill that would establish permanent funding from the state for gifted and talented programs throughout the state. House file #2567 amends the general education revenue act to include yearly funding for gifted and talented programs. Under the proposal, school districts would receive $10 for each adjusted pupil unit.

The bill would increase the education appropriations by $8.752 million to support the gifted and talented financing.

The Zimmermans attended a meeting of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented (MCGT) in St. Paul in late January, where discussion centered on strategies for the current legislative session. The bill's author, Rep. Mindy Greiling, "asked for people, kids especially, who would speak to the House," explained Rheanne. "There were lots of people who volunteered to speak and she chose me."

In her testimony before the committee, Rheanne related the difficulties she had staying academically challenged in a public school. (Her planned testimony is printed in the shaded box on page 7. She used key words to remember her points when she testified.) The ideas were Rheanne's, but she got her father, Dr. Randy Zimmerman, to help organize and type the testimony.

Rheanne's mother, Molly, said Rep. Greiling wanted children to testify because they are the ones who are affected by the current shortage in funding. It doesn't hurt, she added, that kids don't testify before House committees much, making them fresh faces. "When you look at it from their point of view, it's simple," Molly explained. "‘Gosh, I want to learn.'"

Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) didn't hear Rheanne's testimony directly, as he doesn't serve on the education finance committee. He did hear positive reaction to her testimony from his colleagues and said the legislators were impressed by her.

In addition to Zimmerman, an eighth grader from Chaska testified for the committee, as did the head of the MCGT, and Rep. Greiling, the bill's author.

An identical bill has been introduced in the Minnesota Senate, and Rheanne may be asked to testify before a Senate committee as well.

Since Rheanne's testimony, Stang has signed on as one of the bill's 14 authors. "We fund the other end of the spectrum with special education financing," he explained. "We invest money in that, and I think it's just as appropriate to fund the other side."

Despite the encouraging reviews, the bill's prospects in the current session are bleak. Since it is not a funding year, any new additions to the budget will not be greeted warmly. Gov. Jesse Ventura has said that he would veto any expenditures not in last year's budget.

"It is in the mix," said Stang, hopefully, "so who knows what could happen. She did such an excellent job who knows how many legislators will support it."

Molly Zimmerman said public awareness is just as important as funding. Gifted and talented programs were supported financially in the 1980s when they had public support, she said.

Molly said she knows of uses for the extra money already. She attended a local curriculum advisory committee meeting recently where the idea of offering calculus was presented. The gifted and talented funds in the bill could be used for this curriculum development, she said.

For a month now, Rheanne and her sister Ginelle, a third grader, have been splitting time between home schooling with their mother and regular classes at the Paynesville Area Elementary School. In the morning, they study Spanish, keyboarding, and standard subjects at home. "I like doing the harder stuff at home, but I like going to school and playing with the other kids as well," Rheanne said.

"She's been very happy with school lately," her mother added. "It's really important to have those social needs met appropriately."

Molly also credited the school administration and staff with being very supportive of the arrangements. Teachers, she said, have been very helpful in loaning them materials. Molly teaches Rheanne and Ginelle together at home.

Rheanne recently had her abilities tested, which reassured her mother that she was capable of testifying before the House and that she could handle a spelling list with words like portcullis. Molly said learning should involve some struggle and mistakes, so they don't think they know it all. "The point is they're not getting 100 percent," she said "If they're always getting 100 percent, they're getting a false impression."

The state did appropriate money in the 1998-99 school year for gifted and talented programs. The Paynesville Area School District received $7,500. Without reassurances that more funding will be coming from the state, it's impossible to establish any lasting programs.

The school district did support bringing Dr. Stephen Schroeder-Davis to town last fall for an in-service with the elementary school teachers and for a public forum.

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