Legislative Update: March 6, 2020

House higher education committee hears series of student consumer protection bills

A number of bills were heard in the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Division earlier this week with the goal of protecting students who are attending a private, for-profit institution that closes while in the middle of an academic program. The bills are in response to the closing of Argosy University last spring, and the product of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education’s (OHE) work to identify legislative gaps for student consumer protections. All the bills were laid over.

The first bill heard, HF 3959, permits the Office of Higher Education to revoke or suspend approval of a degree-granting or private career school if the school used fraudulent, coercive or dishonest practices; demonstrated incompetence, untrustworthiness, or financial irresponsibility; and was administratively or judicially determined to have committed fraud or a material violation of law involving state, local, or federal funds.

HF 4037 removes the current requirement that a student give written notice to a private career school that the student is cancelling attendance. Students would receive prorated tuition under the bill even if they give non-written notice of cancellation.

HF 4023 and HF 4029 both address the Office of Higher Education regulation of religious postsecondary schools. The first bill makes technical changes by fixing a broken cross-reference. In the section of statute covering degree-granting schools, there is language that nothing in the relevant laws shall be interpreted as permitting the Office of Higher Education to determine the truth of falsity of religious beliefs. The current language extends the range of statutes covered to include the private career schools. The bill would limit the range of statutes to just the sections of law covering degree-granting schools, since the same language already exists in the private career schools section of statute. The second bill, HF 4029, allows a school that offers both religious and non-religious programs to receive a religious exemption for its religious programs, but requires non-religious programs to register with OHE or be licensed by OHE.

HF 4038 requires that the school is physically located in Minnesota. Betsy Talbot, Manager of Private Institution Registration and Licensing at OHE testified that OHE has seen an increase in unaccredited colleges offering online courses in Minnesota. Talbot said there needs to be oversight of these institutions by making sure an out-of-state institution that comes to Minnesota is first accredited before being able to offer any courses to students.

HF 4036 prohibits degree-granting and private career schools from requiring students to agree to mandatory presdispute arbitration clauses. The language makes registration and licensure contingent on a school not requiring such clauses.

The final bill in the series of student consumer protection bills, is HF 2054, a much larger bill that encompasses the language from the individual bills. This bill was sent to the House floor.

House approves Paid Family and Medical Leave Act

Yesterday on the House floor, lawmakers took up the Paid and Family Medical Leave Act, a bill that was heard last session, but failed to become law. By a vote of 70-59, the House passed HF 5, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan. The bill would establish a state-run insurance program to partially reimburse lost wages for workers taking medical or family leave. Employees could take paid time off to recover from illness, arrival of a child or to care for a sick relative. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, called the plan a tax on every business, employee and employer in the state of Minnesota. It is likely the bill will not be considered in the Senate.

Statewide standardized assessments discussed in House committee

Earlier this week, the House Education Policy committee approved HF 3106, a bill authored by Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, that would create a 14-member task force, appointed by the Department of Education, to review and consider a variety of issues related to statewide standardized testing and prepare recommendations to the Legislature by January 2021.

Statewide standardized assessments are one way to measure how curriculum and teaching are aligning with academic standards. Rep. Edelson said that because the test is a significant indicator of performance, and requires state resources, it is something that needs to be continually reviewed. “These are our students and I think we need to pay attention to the trends we’re seeing,” Edelson said.

The trends include an increase in the number of high school students opting out of the testing, according to the Department of Education. More specifically, in the past three years opt-outs for state math tests have increased 44 percent, according to Dave Heistad, executive director for research, evaluation and assessment in Bloomington Public Schools.

Committee discussion regarding reasons why students may be choosing to opt out included test fatigue, as many students are already dedicating time and effort to ACT and AP testing; bad timing, or a lack of alignment between when they’re taking classes and when they’re being tested on them; and a lack of incentive to take the tests because they don’t impact their overall grade.

The increasing number of students opting out of taking assessment tests not only impacts the interpretation of results, but has logistical implications, said Stacey Lackner, director of research and evaluation for Wayzata Public Schools. She said that schools must plan to test all their students, which may include the need to hire additional staff to help proctor tests.

There has been much discussion at the Legislature over the years regarding statewide testing and the challenges that come with it. The Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report in 2017 on standardized testing, as well as a follow up report in 2017.

The next stop for the bill is the House Government Operations Committee. The companion bill, SF 3689, awaits action by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.

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