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With deficits looming, Minnesota's school districts brought their arguments for new funding to the State Capitol this year in the face of warnings not to expect much after a bountiful 2023 session.

And the final tally?

"Very modest," Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said this week.

Lawmakers managed to bolster funding for new literacy programs and took the first step to giving student teachers the financial support they say is needed to stick with 12 weeks of classroom training. Otherwise, it was a policy-driven year, with attention given to curbing excessive cellphone use and keeping kids in school and libraries free of book-ban politics.

"Students must be the center of our focus, and this legislation puts attention squarely on our kids," state Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the House Education Policy Committee, said of the education policy bill approved in the session's closing days.

Here's what they did and some homework they left for later.

Curbing in-school cell phone use

In an effort to keep students on task and to lessen the risks of cyberbullying, the state is requiring every school district and charter school to set cellphone use policies by March 15, 2025.

The legislation is not prescriptive, but state Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, and Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, made clear this year they'd like schools to be cellphone-free — and they pointed to success at a pair of middle schools where students must keep their phones locked up or out of sight.

The state's principals association will advise districts on ways to minimize the effects of cellphones on student behavior, mental health and academic achievement.

Keeping kids in school

School attendance has suffered post-pandemic and lawmakers have responded by establishing a legislative work group to study chronic absenteeism in the coming months. In addition, 12 districts are being asked to come up with "promising practices" that ensure students get to class.

Minneapolis Public Schools is to take the lead and will receive $1 million of $4.7 million in state aid being dedicated to the effort. The 12 districts must conduct their first virtual meeting by Aug. 1.

The legislative work group is charged with recommending how best to tackle absenteeism and truancy, and must issue a final report by Dec. 31.

Matt Shaver, policy director with EdAllies, a group that works closely with underserved communities, said the action was a "start," but a "big deal," too, given limits on new funding this session.

Funding for teachers and student teachers

A year ago, the state passed the Read Act, which tasked teachers with learning a new way to teach kids to read. But districts were left wondering about long-term funding and the time available to train personnel.

There was the question, too, of how to pay teachers for their time learning, so lawmakers this session allocated $31.4 million to districts, charter schools and cooperatives to compensate teachers as they dig into programs placing a greater emphasis on phonics.

A pair of training deadlines were extended by a year, too.

Croonquist said the Read Act funding "certainly is appreciated, but it's not going to cover all of the costs."

The state also set out to ease the financial burden on student teachers who prepare for the profession by working weeks for free. A pilot program will supply a total of $6.5 million in stipends to student teachers enrolled at eight Minnesota colleges and universities.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, commended lawmakers for finding ways to invest in current and future teachers during a tight budget year.

"Every Minnesota student deserves a great teacher who has the support and financial security they need to focus on the work," Specht said in a news release.

Banning bans on books

Another new measure prohibits book bans in schools and public libraries. The move comes at a time when books focusing on multiracial and LGBTQ themes have been removed from shelves at libraries across the U.S.

Students need access to books with "characters like themselves and their families," Specht said, praising the new policy.

Republicans said the legislation was unnecessary because book ban campaigns have been infrequent here.

What didn't happen this session

A proposal to open rigorous courses to more students of color failed to advance, as did a proposed expansion of early learning scholarships to middle-income families. But the state Department of Education is receiving $7 million to establish the logistical groundwork to make the expansion happen.

Ericca Maas of the advocacy group Think Small said the move was an "important vote of confidence" in the fight to make child care more affordable to more families.