Capitol Comments: Addressing the learning loss in children during pandemic

Published 8:45 pm Friday, March 26, 2021

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Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

If there is one thing that is important to all of us — and personally very near and dear to my heart as a former first-grade teacher — it is the education of our children. Children are our treasure, and education is their future.

Peggy Bennett

COVID-19 and the various government responses to the virus have presented numerous challenges for Minnesotans, and especially for our children. One of the greatest impacts on children has been the move from in-person to distance learning during the pandemic.

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Our teachers and school staff have worked heroically to meet the needs of their students over this past year in an extremely difficult and challenging teaching environment. They deserve a huge thank you! Even so, distance learning has been very tough on kids. Though a few students have thrived under remote learning models, the vast majority have struggled academically, mentally and emotionally.

I appreciate that Gov. Walz has proposed increased summer school opportunities for those students who have fallen behind. I believe there is widespread bipartisan, bicameral support for summer school funding to address this learning loss. The question is, what is the best way to provide it?

Whatever legislation we settle upon, I want to make sure the dollars are being used wisely and will actually work to fix the problem for our children. Let’s make sure we are funding kids, not bureaucracies. That means getting these dollars directly down to local schools and classrooms where the teachers, administrators, parents and school boards can make the decisions that best meet the needs of their students.

Two weeks ago, my House Republican colleagues and I attempted to bring legislation to the House floor that we believe would bring some certainty to our children and their school districts in regards to summer school remediation.

Among the bill’s provisions, it would get our summer school kids back to school in-person, fund early learning scholarships, which target the most vulnerable preschool children with the highest needs and give additional funding for mental health support. The bill provides for local control by giving flexibility to schools through direct funding so they can meet the needs of their local students.

Sadly, the House majority did not allow this bill to come forward for a vote and the accompanying debate.

This past week, the House Democrats brought their summer school bill to the floor for a vote. This bill, like the one described above, draws funding from Minnesota federal COVID relief dollars.

Though my DFL colleagues’ bill contains some good components such as funding for proven tutoring programs like Reading and Math Corps, special education transition services and mental health initiatives for students, I was disappointed that only about half of the bill really targets funding for K-12 summer school. The other half would go to programs outside of our schools or beyond the goal of summer school funding.

Though I care deeply for our children and their educational needs, I voted against this Democrat proposal. Micromanaging schools by requiring them to apply for various grants and spend dollars from different “pots” of money is not the answer. Our schools and teachers need more local control so they can be empowered to innovate and personalize to meet student needs.

Equally concerning to me on a local level, the per pupil summer school funds in this provision are distributed very disproportionately. Schools in areas like Minneapolis would receive very large per pupil increases while schools in areas like Albert Lea, Glenville and Wells would receive substantially less and, in some cases, no summer school increases.

Children in our smaller school districts have felt these repercussions and learning losses just as much as the larger school districts. The per pupil summer school funding should be equalized throughout the state to serve all students who need the extra help.

Those of you who know me know that I do not judge legislation based on whether it is a “Democrat bill” or a “Republican bill.” It doesn’t matter to me who comes up with the idea; I simply want good legislation. I will always weigh bills by their merits and use my best judgment to decide if the bill make sense, will actually work to fix the problem, and is a wise investment of your tax dollars.

I will continue working to make sure we are providing smart, quality educational opportunities for our children, including finding summer remediation opportunities for those students who have had pandemic related learning loss. Our children deserve that!

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 27A representative.