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Paynesville Press - April 21, 2004

Educational issues keep legislators busy in St. Paul

By Sarah Arnquist

Education has made big headlines at the 2004 Legislative Session. The content of the new social studies and science standards, the approval of Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke, and the challenges of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are some issues that have drawn heated arguments from all sides.

Last year's legislature repealed the Profile of Learning standards that previously guided education in Minnesota. In that same session, lawmakers adopted math and language arts standards that were implemented this fall, and authorized Yecke to begin drafting a new set of social studies and science standards.

State legislators are currently reviewing the third draft of the social studies standards, after the first two drafts drew harsh criticism for being too rigorous, too Euro-centric and politically biased. Lawmakers should keep the best interest of the students in mind while drafting the standards, said Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar). He supports giving the students facts and ideas and then letting them decide how they want to learn and what ideas they believe.

The standards were created by an 80-member committee that included teachers, administrators, and representatives from higher education and rural Minnesota. Since last September more than 2,000 people have attended public meetings held across the state to discuss the standards.

The science standards include history and nature of science, physical science, earth and space science, and life science. They should be introduced in schools next fall.

The social studies standards include U.S. history, world history, government and citizenship, geography, and economics. As written in the bill, they would not be implemented until the 2005-06 school year. The social studies standards do not require state-mandated testing, unlike math, reading, and science.

Critics have said the social studies standards demand too much mere information processing and memorization. Committee members reworked the standards to lower the number of standards and benchmarks, which the Department of Education believes will allow teachers more flexibility to incorporate higher critical thinking skills.

EdAction, an education grassroots organization with 30,000 members across the state, supports the standards and has rallied in the capitol. Board member Michael Chapman is among those urging lawmakers to adopt the standards.

"They're knowledge-based, and they teach our kids what's important for them to know about the history and principles of American freedom,' Chapman said while lobbying at the Capitol. "We need to set our standards high if we want high expectations in education.'

The federal No Child Left Behind law demands that states begin testing on science in the 2007-08 school year. Students would have to test three times from third to 12th grade.

The House of Representatives passed HF2558, a bill to adopt the science and social studies standards in mid-March. The 73-55 vote came after a five-hour debate that brought up issues of creationism versus evolution in the science standards, the principles of freedom and Western-skewed ideas in the social studies standards, and the costs to implement the standards in a time of fiscal restraint.

The house added an amendment that challenges accepted scientific theories such as evolution.

The most heated debates have occurred on the Senate floor where alternative social studies standards have been presented. The standards are now included in the education omnibus bill (SF2353) and awaiting action by the finance committee.

Health and physical education educators have joined the debate in requesting that lawmakers bring back their standards, which were eliminated last year. Students are required to take some level of physical education in K-12, but the hours and curriculums are not set. The teachers are worried that without state standards that health and physical education will be reduced in school curriculums.

So far, no action has been made to add these standards.

Yecke confirmation
Yecke's critics dislike her staunch support of the federal No Child Left Behind act and avid pushing of the social studies standards that some say are biased and harmful for Minnesota schools. Her supporters laud her credentials and action to remove the state's unpopular Profile of Learning.

Yecke's strongest critics in the Senate are challenging her confirmation.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Yecke education commissioner late in last year's session. The Senate confirmation hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, April 20.

Though an official vote has not yet been taken, Republicans seem to support Yecke's confirmation and DFLers do not.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) supports Yecke's confirmation. "This is the governor's choice,' Fischbach said. "He has to be able to pick his administration.'

No Child Left Behind
The impact and costs of the No Child Left Behind law has raised significant controversy in both the Minnesota Senate and House. Support for the bill seems to be divided along the party lines.

Some DFLers have called for the state to opt out, but Republicans say the state cannot afford to risk losing the $200 million in federal funding the law guarantees.

Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) said Minnesota cannot afford to opt out of the federal law. Though it will be expensive and difficult to implement, "it's not something we want to take a hit on,' he said.

The act requires students at public schools to show annual improvement on standardized tests in math, reading, English language skills, and science. The failure of a student group can result in the entire school losing funding. Federal lawmakers say the bill will close the gap between privileged and underprivileged children.

A 90-page audit examining the federal law's costs and impact on Minnesota education raised considerable questions when it was released in early March. The audit reported that more than 80 percent of Minnesota's public elementary schools will be considered failing under the federal guidelines by 2014, and so would lose funding.

Superintendant Howard Caldwell of the Paynesville Area Public Schools is worried about the implementation costs of both the new state standards and the federal standards required by No Child Left Behind. The standards would require new textbooks and other learning materials that schools don't have the funding for right now, Caldwell said.

"We have trouble funding current programs and now we have to fund new programs,' he said.

If schools are asked to comply with No Child Left Behind, they need to receive the funding to do so, Caldwell said.

Right now schools just don't have enough money to do all the special support help that is required to get all kids up to the standards. Under the new distribution formula, the federal law actually takes away about 13 percent, or $25,000, of Paynesville's Title I funding.

But on the other hand, Caldwell said, you can't ignore the loss of federal money the state would experience if it chose to opt out.

"When you look at all things involved, the state would be silly not to comply with current policy,' said Caldwell, who does hope that the law will be amended.

(Editor's Note: Arnquist is a senior journalism major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is covering the 2004 legislative session for the Paynesville Press.)

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