Minnesota lawmakers OK school policy changes on cell phones, book bans, literacy

Published 11:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2024

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By Elizabeth Shockman, Minnesota Public Radio News

Minnesota lawmakers on Wednesday backed an education policy bill that prohibits book bans, requires schools to implement cell phone policies and adjusts requirements on literacy instruction.

After close to an hour of debate, the bill passed the Minnesota House 68-59, largely along party lines, following earlier approval by the Senate. It heads next to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk for signing into law.

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The bill tweaks measures introduced at the Legislature year and institutes new requirements for schools. Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, called the package “best for our kids and best for our families in the state now and into the future.”

Several Republicans, including Rep. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea, decried the number of new requirements as unnecessarily burdensome on schools.

“Last year schools were inundated with a huge number of mandates. They’re swimming under those mandates, keeping their noses just above water,” she said. “This bill adds more when it really should be adjusting those mandates, backing off some of them, delaying some of them so that our schools can get their feet on the floor and get some work done.”

Many of the bill changes are focused on the Read Act, legislation passed last year that sought to overhaul the way Minnesota schools teach students to read by requiring districts to retrain teachers and purchase new curriculums in line with what’s known as “structured literacy.”

This year, lawmakers added to that legislation by increasing the number of times schools need to screen student progress each year. Next school year, schools will be allowed to reduce in-class instruction to allow teachers time to learn new teaching methods.

In recent floor debates, Republican representatives have raised concerns about requiring literacy curriculums to be reviewed for cultural responsiveness. On Wednesday, several Republican members said the changes to the Read Act would slow down implementation of the policy.

“We had a lot of hope last session with the passage of the Read Act and I thought that we were having strong bipartisan support for the science of reading,” said Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove. “This bill is turning back on that commitment and it’s very disappointing.”

Pryor, though, insisted the changes to last year’s bill do nothing to pull back from best practices on teaching literacy.

“Mostly what we have right now is giving more flexibility for schools,” Pryor said. “We’re recognizing that the content is good for teaching reading, but the content falls short for addressing the diversity that we see in our classrooms.”

The education policy bill also requires schools to offer students in grades 4-12 instruction on mental health starting in 2026, a measure Pryor said was requested by students.

It also includes a ban on book bans — language that prohibits public and school libraries from removing or restricting access to a book “based solely on its viewpoint or the messages, ideas or opinions it conveys” and that insulates library employees from discipline against them for complying with the new rules.

‘Getting somewhere’ on cell phones

Among the measures that found common ground between DFLers and Republicans, the bill includes a statewide mandate requiring schools adopt rules regarding students’ possession and use of cell phones while in school.

School leaders will receive information around best practices and schools will be required to have policies in place by next March. Pryor said the cell phone policy guidance was in response to school leader requests.

“When you read the studies, when you read the reports, you know that a lot of the (student) mental health issues, the behavior issues stem from something … that wasn’t in school when I was, for sure,” Pryor said.

Robbins said the bill language on cell phone policy was not exactly what she would have proposed, but added that she was pleased overall with the attempt to limit cell phone use in schools.

“We are getting somewhere on convincing schools to limit cell phone use. There are a lot of challenges with mental health in schools and this is the most low-hanging fruit,” Robbins said. “I have schools that have limited cell phone use during instruction time and it has completely changed the game in terms of focus, climate, fights, engagement, the teachers are happier.”

Among other policy measures is a note that allows school districts which currently have an American Indian mascot, logo, nickname or team name one additional year to change their mascot. Districts now have until September of 2026 to comply.