NDU LEGISLATIVE UPDATE — Week Six, and Education Secretary Confirmation Stirs the Masses

By Tom Gerhardt, NDU Director of Public Affairs

We’re all familiar with the old phrase, “you win some, you lose some.” I’m finding more and more in politics it’s not always that black and white. Take, for example, the confirmation of our new Secretary of Education.

(Bears usually win, though. — editor’s meme)

Thousands of us across the state of North Dakota, and millions across the nation, did our homework and organized our voices against Betsy DeVos’ nomination. That included somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 calls to U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who cast her vote against DeVos in the Senate confirmation hearing this week. Senator Heitkmap said 90 percent of callers urged her to vote no on DeVos. Senator John Hoeven chose to support her, although it’s safe to assume he received as many or more calls and emails. The end result was Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote to confirm DeVos. The New York Times reports,”It was the first time a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination.”

President Nick Archuleta joined “News & Views” with Joel Heitkamp on KFGO this week to talk about DeVos and her confirmation, and what it means for all of us concerned about public education.

So even though the vote didn’t go the way we wanted, we can still file this one under the “you win some” category. The organic union of thousands of teachers, students, parents, Democrats and Republicans who stood up for their determined belief in both public education and the future of our children, was nothing short of astounding. According to this article from NEA Today, the mobilization against Betsy DeVos “shook Capitol Hill and the White House.”

“In my years as a public education advocate, I have never witnessed this level of public outcry,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “The nomination has touched a raw nerve not only with public education advocates like me but with the general public as well.”

Meanwhile, it’s too early to count wins and losses at the Capitol in Bismarck, but there are some things to feel good about as we near the midpoint of the proposed 70-day legislative session.

Let start with HB 1432, which NDU strongly opposes. Here’s a quick recap; It’s the bill that would erase standards our very own North Dakota teachers have been working to craft to replace Common Core. The bill also called for adopting standards used in Massachusetts in the early 2000s (FYI, even THEY don’t even use them anymore. — editor’s note), and limiting the power of the Superintendent of Public Instruction by handing authority over to the Legislature.

Rep. Ben Koppelman asked for the six-page bill to be broken down into two sections for separate votes on the house floor. Division A included sections 2 and 6 (limit power of DPI Supt. and eliminate Common Core). That failed by a vote of 27–62. The rest of the bill (adopting Massachusetts standards, withdraw from consortiums) was put in division ‘B.’ That failed by a vote of 10–78.

Rep. Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, Wahpeton, provided critical testimony on the floor to help defeat the bill, as did Reps. Mark Owens, Grand Forks, and Pat Heinert, Bismarck.

You can read more about the bill in this Bismarck Tribune article.

Another bill we’ve been watching closely and also strongly oppose is HB 1382. That’s Rep. Rick Becker’s “education savings account bill,” or what we more appropriately refer to as a voucher bill (We’re nothing if not appropriate. — editor’s note). Rep. Becker would like to take public tax dollars and use them for non-public education.

I have some good news to report here, as well. The House Education Committee offered an amendment to the bill that turned it into a study by a 9–3 vote. It’s on the calendar to be voted on by the House. Turning it into a study would task the legislative management to consider studying the feasibility and desirability of developing a school choice program during the 2017–18 interim.

Ultimately, we don’t think we need to study this issue, because we already know that it’s bad news for public schools.

SB 2186 is the education-innovation bill that will allow for exciting options in teaching and learning. The bill, with amendments, received a 5–0 Do Pass recommendation out of the Senate Education Committee and passed 44–0 on the Senate floor this afternoon. We’d like to offer kudos to NDU member Sen. Erin Oban for carrying the bill!

SB 2243 is the teacher loan forgiveness bill. The bill moved to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a hearing earlier this week. The program, which aims to fill teaching positions in remote or hard-to-fill areas, would pay back up to $25,000 of student loans over three years. NDU stands in strong support of this bill, along with other education organizations and the Department of Public Instruction.

Earlier today, we got word of an amendment offered by Rep. Al Carlson to HB 1023. It’s an 82-page amendment to the PERS budget. We are keeping a close eye on the amendment because we have some concerns about public employees losing their voice in the process of making decisions on their health care.

There are some updates to pass along on the multiple gun bills under consideration by two sub-committees that have been formed to work on the legislation.

The first, HB 1310, deals with guns in schools. It is important to point out that no official action has been taken in this committee, but they are looking at amending the bill. Rep. Chuck Damschen chairs this subcommittee. They are proposing a pilot program, capped at five schools, that would allow retired law enforcement officers to have a concealed weapon in schools. The retired officer would be subject to mental screening and be vetted by the Superintendent and Principal. Active-shooter training would also be a requirement. The committee is taking these ideas to Legislative Management to be drawn up as an amendment. The committee is planning to meet again Thursday.

NDU President Nick Archuleta testified against HB 1310, as was noted in this story from the Jamestown Sun.

The other sub-committee met Thursday afternoon and talked about another gun bill we are monitoring, HB 1278. The bill deals with guns in government buildings. The committee gave the bill a unanimous DNP recommendation to move to the full committee. But there’s a bit of a catch. Committee members believe an amendment offered to HB 1190 supersedes it. HB 1190 would authorize the Governor, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to authorize an individual to carry a concealed weapon.

We’ve also been following Governor Burgum’s proposal, which calls for public employees to kick in 5 percent or their health insurance premiums. As I’ve mentioned in prior Legislative Updates, during our lobbying efforts we’ve been told the idea is off the table for now. A story by John Hageman of Forum News Service confirms that remains the case. We’re reminded that anything can happen at the end of the session, so continue to let you lawmakers know not to balance the budget on the backs of public employees. (Keep up the pressure by clicking here to easily send a message to legislators, and urge them to not balance the budget on the backs of our hard-working public employees! — editor’s note)

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education doesn’t meet again until Feb. 23, but a sub-committee on Rule 605.3 (a drastic change in tenure policy) will meet via phone on Friday, Feb. 17, at 8:30 a.m. Here is a link to scheduled meetings.

I can also tell you the House voted on HB 1333, which allows applicants for the state’s top higher education jobs to remain confidential until that person becomes a finalist. Those positions include the Chancellor of the University System and presidents in the University System. The bill passed by a 56–35 vote.

BILLS IN BRIEF

HB 1428 & 1429 — Loosens home-schooling standards. Both received DNP recommendations out of committee. HB 1429 failed on the House floor by a vote of 28–63, while HB 1428 is still on the 11th order.

HB 1318 — The Regional Education Associations (REA) bill. An amendment was passed that turns it into a study.

HB 1389 — Allows a parent to opt out of tests and assessments without interference from the state. It received a DNP recommendation (11–1) from the House Education Committee.

Next week we are keeping an eye a handful of bills, including HB 1023, dealing with PERS.

HB 1052, relating to the administration of a state assessment in reading and math, will be in front of the Senate Education Committee, and SB 2030 will be in front of House Education. That’s the bill to update references of “North Dakota Education Association” to “North Dakota United” in statute.

Finally, a reminder Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. If you are thinking of getting something for renowned editor Kelly Hagen, please do not choose coffee. He’s more of a soda fountain kind of guy. (That’s why I’m so sweet. And while we’re on the subject of how syrupy I can be, special Happy Valentine’s Day greetings to NDU member and editor’s wife, Annette! Hopefully she’s reading this. I’ll remind her to, when I see her next. — editor’s note)

Monday, I’ll join NDU President Archuleta for our regularly scheduled Facebook Live presentation of “This Week in the N.D. Legislature” at 4:30 p.m. CST. You can see which of us is wearing the nicer tie.

And don’t forget to follow us on social media, @NDUnited on Twitter and Facebook.com/NDUnited, for daily updates. You can also email me tom.gerhardt@ndunited.org with questions, comments or concerns.

United, we can make a difference!