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OUR OPINION: Innovation lives in the Minnesota Legislature

In the Minnesota Legislature these days, most of the talk concerns balancing the budget. Most. But not all. The budget talk rightly dominates, given yawning gap between Minnesota's revenues and spending. But in a handful of cases, lawmakers also ...

In the Minnesota Legislature these days, most of the talk concerns balancing the budget.

Most. But not all. The budget talk rightly dominates, given yawning gap between Minnesota's revenues and spending. But in a handful of cases, lawmakers also are talking about interesting projects and useful reforms. These projects are a bittersweet reminder of the Minnesota of old, the place that led the nation in effective state government. If they make it into law, you'll know that Minnesota has life in it yet.

- The proposed Legislative Commission on Policy Innovation and Research belongs in the "interesting projects" category.

In February, Minnesota lawmakers heard from Larry Keeley, a Chicago-based consultant who's won fame by helping companies create new and successful products.

"Keeley recommended gaining greater 'innovation competence' by remaking the state's decision-making process," reported Lori Sturdevant, a Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist.

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"It should be built around a disciplined analysis of state problems and opportunities, he said. That's an exercise quite different from partisan positioning, orchestrated public hearings and theatrical floor debates."

The state of Washington does this through its Washington State Institute for Public Policy. a nonpartisan state research institution. "The Institute's mission is to carry out practical, nonpartisan research "at legislative direction" on issues of importance to Washington State," the institute's Web site reports.

For example, the Legislature asked the institute to report on the effect class size has on K-12 student achievement.

"We analyzed 38 recent high-quality evaluations," the institute reported back in 2007.

"The results are mixed. We find that during kindergarten through second grade, there is evidence that reducing class size increases test scores. During third through sixth grade, the gains remain significant but are much smaller. ... In middle and high school, we find that reduced class sizes do not lead to statistically significant test score gains."

That's exactly the kind of information lawmakers need to craft public policy that works.

Unlike the Washington Institute, the proposed commission in Minnesota would not be staffed with its own experts. Instead, the bipartisan commission of legislative leaders would contract with "a consortium of independent organizations" to do the research.

"Everyone would benefit from a system that bases policy decisions on sound research rather than political affiliations," as a former editor and publisher of the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin wrote. This creative idea deserves lawmakers' support.

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- While the above proposal hasn't yet made it out of committee, plans for alternative licenses for teachers have. "Two bills that would allow people interested in teaching to get their licenses without going through traditional colleges of education ... passed through the House K-12 Education Policy Division," the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported last month.

The nationwide debate on alternative licensure isn't over. But it's close, considering that 47 states now have some provision to hire teachers with credentials other than traditional education degrees.

The Teach for America program may be the best-known of these efforts. The program takes top graduates with liberal arts degrees, trains them to be teachers and places them in schools around the country, usually in low-income areas.

As Wikipedia reports, "applying to Teach for America has become very popular among seniors at some of America's elite colleges. ... In 2007, the organization received more than 18.000 applications resulting in 2,900 new corps members." The applicants included 8 percent of Princeton's graduating class and 10 percent of the seniors at the University of Chicago and Duke.

Minnesota's Board of Teaching granted "experimental approval" for Teach for America teachers; the first group of about 40 started work in the fall. "Principals there (in Minneapolis) have said these teachers are leading their classrooms well and have brought new energy and enthusiasm to the profession," the Pioneer Press reported.

The bills heard by the House committee would make the alternative licensing plans permanent.

Meanwhile, in North Dakota. ... Well, the National Center for Alternative Certification's "North Dakota" entry reads in full as follows: "North Dakota is not currently implementing any alternative teacher certification routes." That should change.

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