Carlos Mariani on education issues

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Charter schools, the math GRAD test, and No Child Left Behind were among the topics when Daily Planet reporter James Sanna sat down with State Representative Carlos Mariani (DFL – St Paul) Tuesday to talk about some of the issues in public education facing the legislature this year. Rep. Mariani chairs the House of Representatives’ E-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee.

TCDP: In your committee hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Jim Abler mentioned a proposed law to regulate charter schools – among other things, it gets more specific about a sponsor’s responsibilities or about their religious affiliation – Could you tell us a little more about that?

Rep. Mariani: Well, the bill stems from the Legislative Auditor’s report last year. It’ll probably encompass most of their recommendations. There’s some pretty safe stuff, like removing the requirement that a school’s teachers make up a majority on its board. It creates a conflict of interest because you were hired by the superintendent, but you might not make decisions they like.

There’s also some pretty controversial stuff with religious affiliation, and the really hot issue of putting a three-year moratorium on the founding of any new charter school in an area that’s just had a public school close. With the drop in state and local budgets, and the decline in the population of school-aged kids, we’re probably going to see more schools closing. The school districts don’t want to lose kids from those schools to a charter.

TCDP: Could you say more about the regulations on charter school sponsors? How does religion figure into the bill?

Rep. Mariani: I hope there are relatively simple ways to handle that [the issue of religion]. Any publicly funded institution can’t offer religious education, but because charters need to have a sponsor, that opens the door to a grey area. The main thing is we want to make sure religious instruction is not supported by public monies.

TCDP: Another big issue mentioned at your committee meeting was changing the minimum passing score on the state’s Graduation Required Assessments for Diploma (GRAD) test in math. As I understand it, if nothing changes, many students across the state won’t pass, and will have to re-take the test if they want their high school diplomas because the state’s schools haven’t prepared them for this test.

Rep. Mariani: No one is arguing that we should change the graduation standards. The GRAD test, which is embedded in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test, measures skill – not proficiency, but adequacy to receive a diploma. What Commissioner Seagren is going to do is change the “cut score” – the lowest score you can get but still pass. She’s got the authority to do that. [TCDP: Typically, the Commissioner of Education sets the “cut score” by May 29, according to Christine Dufour a Department of Education spokesperson]

TCDP: This begs the question, though, of how we got here.

Rep. Mariani: Well, 2007 was a really big year in making GRAD the high-stakes test; I think the House didn’t understand the full impact of that until last year. Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL – Bloomington) had a bill last year that would have dealt with this; in fact, the House passed it, but the Senate left it alone, and the Department of Education didn’t want to deal with it. The bill would have introduced a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes GRAD test so students could prepare themselves; it would have also had a “safe harbor provision” so students could have time to study and take the test multiple times.

TCDP: What are some other big issues you see on the horizon for this legislative session, or this year?

Rep. Mariani: Access to equitable outcomes for students from low-income or minority communities is headed in the wrong direction. Particularly in our urban school districts, there’s some good movement, but it’s just too slow. We need to have a conversation about this, and what we’ll do to solve it.

Nationally, we’re probably going to see changes in federal resources for education and major reforms to the No Child Left Behind requirements, but we’re not holding our breath that those will happen before May [TCDP: when this legislative session ends]. We’re trying to open a channel to the White House, and we’ve got an open channel to our local congressional delegation, and we can advise them. Here’s the rub: their cycle of deliberation ends with the calendar year, and ours ends in May, so the Minnesota legislature won’t be able to coordinate our reform efforts with Congress. We’ll probably be a year off in aligning our policies with federal priorities.

James Sanna (james.sanna@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.

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