A Communication for Education Advocates in SEE Districts - January 8, 2021
What is happening at the Capitol (via Zoom)?
It was a busy week with numerous education committee meetings. Following are some highlights.

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) discussed the second round of the new federal Covid relief funds for schools passed in December. The August Legislative Update from SEE discussed the first federal Corvid relief package for schools passed in March 2020. The relief funding sent directly to school districts ($423 million) was equably distributed using two revenue streams. CARES aid was based on the student poverty concentration in a school district to support our most at-risk students and families. CRF aid was based on a per-student basis to help all school districts provide a safe learning environment for students and staff. However, the second round of federal Covid relief funding ($649 million) is mostly directed to school districts based on its student poverty concentration through the national Title-1 formula. The Governor does have about 10% ($61 million) to use at his discretion. But, a per-pupil funding stream is not included in the second round of federal aid. I have some concerns that districts that receive little Title-1 funding may not generate enough federal Covid aid to cover the costs of providing a safe learning environment during a pandemic.   Following is additional detailed information.
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MDE reviewed the November forecast. In the summer forecast, the state had a $2.4 billion deficit for the year ending on June 30, 2021. Tax revenue was up and state spending down, which changed the projected deficit to a surplus of $641 million. The earlier budget predicted significant job losses due to Covid. Although true, job loss disproportionately impacted lower-wage earners, who pay less in income taxes. A majority of higher earners continue to work and pay their income taxes. Sales tax revenue was similarly higher than predicted. On the expenditure side, due to Covid concerns, a surprising number of students choose different school options other than public schools, such as delaying kindergarten enrollment, attending private schools, or choosing to homeschool. As education funding is mostly on a per-pupil basis, the state will spend $118 million less on Minnesota schools. While excellent savings for the state, Minnesota schools have an unpredicted hole in their budgets. The SEE Legislative Platform asks the state to use the school counts from the February 2020 or the November 2020 forecast, whichever is higher, to hold schools harmless from this pandemic impact. The November forecast for the upcoming two-year budget went from a deficit of nearly $5 billion to a  $1.3 billion deficit.  The SEE Legislative Platform asks for 2% increases to the basic formula in each of the next two years to minimize cuts due to inflation, which costs approximately $400 million. A lot can change before the February 2021 forecast that the legislature will use to craft the budget. There may also be some conversations at the Capitol to use the school shift tool to provide some revenue increases for schools and other areas of government. I'll talk more about this in a future update. However, school advocates may be presented with a choice of holding schools harmless for this year with smaller increases to the basic formula or larger increases to the formula and little funding to hold districts harmless. Education advocates must consider if schools should have all the new dollars going to on-going increases to the basic formula or use a portion for one-time spending to hold school districts harmless - something to think about. See the presentation on the November forecast.

In committee, MDE Commissioner Mary Cathryn was asked about the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) plan for this spring. The Commissioner replied that last year the federal Department of Education waived the national assessment requirements, so students did not take the MCAs last spring. However, MDE did not expect a similar waiver this year.  When pressed if the new Biden administration may change that, she firmly replied that another waiver is not anticipated and MDE plans to administer the MCAs to students this spring. 

MDE and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reviewed the Safe Learning Plan, which was updated when Governor Tim Walz announced that elementary schools could open for in-person learning starting on January 18. The plan provides guidelines to meet students' academic, social, and emotional needs while keeping students and staff safe. MDH stated there are no apparent differences in Covid transmission rates from children between age 5 and 19. Also, there is no correlation of increased Covid case rates in students age 5 to 19 when students were in school. The data suggest that more in-person learning results in less community transmission of the virus in this age group.   Thus, the question was asked why limit opening schools to only elementary students? MDH responded that older students are much more likely than the younger students to get sicker from Covid and need hospitalization while acknowledging that school-age kids have a very low rate of serious complications. MDH also noted that students could transmit the virus to the adults in a school, some of whom are at higher risk of complications and death. Read moreMDH and MDE presentation.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Deb Griffiths
Schools for Equity in Education (SEE)
Director of Communications and Community Outreach
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