Morrison County educators describe priorities for the president

What should the top educational priority be for Congress and the Obama Administration? Twenty-six Minnesota education leaders responded when I asked them last week. Their responses fell into several major areas.

Steve Jones, Little Falls superintendent, wrote, “My number one priority in education for the next president is: To have the president fully understand how the mission of education has changed in the past four decades (and continues to change). Schools have been charged with being not only academic institutions but … also social organizations that fulfill multiple needs in the lives of children. However, we are still viewed by legislators and politicians as the types of schools they attended as children in the 1970s and 1980s; their perception of ‘what is’ in education does not match the reality of ‘what it really is.’”

Vern Capelle of Upsala said his top education priority “for the next president to help our public schools … focus is on student growth and achievement, rather than solely on standardized test scores. Our students have many individual differences and needs that must be considered when establishing realistic achievement goals. Focusing on growth, rather than a uniform set of standards, will encourage students to become active and engaged in their learning, and also will allow schools to develop a curriculum that provides the knowledge and skills to prepare students for their future.”

George Weber, Pierz superintendent, told me, “My number one priority specific to pre-K – 12 education would be that our president articulate a vision for the skills that a high school graduate should graduate with that provide the best chance of success in our adult society. It seems clear that employers and colleges are asking for: creativity, communication skills, personal work ethic, team skills and critical thinking.

“This skills set is more directly related to the ever evolving economic environment they will have to successfully navigate throughout their adult life.

“The No Child Left Behind initiative launched and supported through the last several presidencies does little to support this skill set and arguably flies in the face of that particular skill set. The other inherent flaw in the current federal education model is that even after having lived with the assessment system spawned by No Child Left Behind, we still do not have any consistent information on the national state of our students, because every state uses a different test,” said Weber.

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin superintendent, spoke for many when he wrote, “We need a bipartisan approach to address special education funding. The Anoka-Hennepin School District is now subsidizing special education services to students using $31 million annually from our general fund. We support wholeheartedly the services to our special education students, but it should not come as a cost to our other students. State and federal mandates should be adequately funded or the statute intent is not genuine.”

According to the non-partisan publication “Education Week,” Congress promised to pay approximately 40 percent of the cost of special education costs when the initial federal law was passed in 1975. But current federal spending is about 16 percent of the costs. Providing 40 percent would involve going from about $11.5 billion to about $35.3 billion. Legislation that would do this by 2021 was introduced earlier this year, but it did not pass.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, agreed and added to these priorities.

He wrote: “My top priority for the next president is to stop treating federal education policy like a political football and bring some stability to our schools. That starts with closing the Pell Grant shortfall once and for all, actually honoring the federal government’s promise to pay for special education in the states and replacing No Child Left Behind with a new law that creates sensible accountability while preserving flexibility at the state and local levels.”

Jason Ulbrich, executive director of Eagle Ridge Charter in Eden Prairie told me, “My number one priority in education for the next president … is to encourage high performing schools to share best practices and reproduce. This would include providing promised funding on time and to give flexibility in utilizing federal monies.”

Our taxes have paid for development of new assessments that are supposed to give a broader, more complete view of student progress. Standardized tests measure some, but not all, important things we want students to learn.

It may be naïve to think that Congress and the president will agree on most, or even all of these suggestions. But I think it’s a good list. I hope legislators listen to and learn from these folks.

Joe Nathan received awards from parent, professional and student groups for his work, and now directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at [email protected].