Tough year for education - Tougher times expected in 2009 session

It was a rocky road for both the education policy and budget bills during the 2008 session of the Minnesota Legislature on May 13. Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the E-12 Education Policy Bill. That action was followed three days later by the veto of the E-12 Omnibus Education Budget Bill. However, legislators were able to pass a handful of helpful items through the Omnibus Budget Bill. Included in the items approved was an increase of $51 of state aid per student. This will provide a measure of financial relief for schools.

In addition, the special education task force, which was created during the 2007 legislative session, had its work continued another year in order to complete its assigned duties. The purpose of this task force is to compare the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requirements with Minnesota laws and rules, determine which Minnesota laws exceed federal laws, and provide recommendations on which state laws to eliminate.

The special education task force is currently composed of 10 members: four parent and parent advocacy organization representatives, five school representatives, and the Minnesota Department of Education—a non-voting member. As part of its analysis during the 2007 year, the task force determined that some Minnesota laws exceeding federal laws include: transition services beginning at age 14; dispute resolution processes such as conciliation and facilitated Individual Education Programs (IEPs); and the state law which places the burden of proof on school districts to show that they complied with special education laws. While the task force was able to complete a review of state statutes and rules, its members were not able to complete a comparison of Minnesota rules that exceed federal laws.

The Legislature extended the task force’s existence for another year and requires members to submit a final report to the Legislature by Feb.15, 2009. Thanks to the work of parents, parent advocates, student advocates and key legislators such as Representatives Debra Hilstrom and Mindy Greiling, some improvements were made to the task force such as adding another representative from a parent advocacy organization so equal representation is ensured, and allowing the task force to make recommendations on how to change laws and rules. The latter is particularly important because the task force was previously restricted to recommending that a law or rule be kept or eliminated. As task force members did their work, they determined that some laws and rules could be retained with changes.

With a $1 billion total state budget deficit, it was a tough year for education. Projections for 2009 appear to be even worse and this will be even more critical because the 2009 session will determine funding for the 2010-2011 school years. Therefore, it’s important for parents of children with disabilities to continue to be active and informed advocates.

With 2008 being an election year, parents should not be afraid to ask for elected officials and candidates that will stand strong when it comes to maintaining services for children with disabilities and ensuring special education has an adequate, consistent funding stream.

The complete E-12 education bill can be found at www.leg.state.mn.us. Use the bill tracker page.

Kim Kang is the Public Policy and Early Childhood Director at PACER Center. For more info visit www.pacer.org