Minnesota education leaders set priorities for Legislature

Nathan-on-Education-newWhat are the top recommendations to Minnesota legislators from superintendents, charter public school directors and other leaders? More than 90 percent of 51 leaders responded when I contacted them recently. Here are their priorities.

Not surprisingly, more state money, more equitably distributed was by far the most frequent suggestion.

Stephen Jones, Little Falls superintendent, wrote, “My top priority for the session is for the Legislature to truly hear, examine and consider the recommendations brought forth by the Education Finance Reform Working Group.

“For the past decade, there has been universal agreement that education finance in Minnesota is a convoluted quagmire; the recommendations of the Working Group should receive serious bipartisan attention from the Legislature. I believe children and families in Minnesota deserve that.”

Vern Capelle of Upsala suggests, “The top priority in education of the 2013 Legislature would be to increase the amount of general funding provided to schools. K-12 public schools, especially those in rural Minnesota, have received tremendous support from their local taxpayers, but the districts cannot continue to ask the taxpayers to increase their level of support without seeing the same increase from the state.”

George Weber, superintendent of Pierz, said he is, “Impressed with the work and final recommendations from the Finance Task Force led by the highly-respected education finance expert Tom Melcher. The growing funding discrepancy between the highest-funded children and the lowest-funded children in Minnesota has reached the same levels of concern that prompted lawsuits a couple of decades ago. So this issue must be addressed and the task force recommendations provide significant restructuring of some of the funding without really adding a great deal to the costs of the Legislature.”

The next most frequently priority was more funding for early childhood education. Some suggested greater funding for programs involving 3- and 4-year-olds. Others focused on all-day, every-day kindergarten.

For example, Lisa Hendricks, director of Partnership Academy in Richfield believes, ”In order to eliminate the staggering achievement gap we have in Minnesota, we need to start making pre-K a priority.”

Education leaders mentioned several other priorities. These include greater funding dedicated to special education, no more unfunded mandates, repaying the money already owed to public schools and greater flexibility.

Curt Johnson, formerly a Minnesota community college president and long-time reformer now with Education Evolving, wrote that the group’s top priority is to, “Allow charter school authorizers, as well as school district boards, to designate a limited number of departments or whole schools for participation in an ‘innovation zone.’ Schools, or parts of schools, so designated would be essentially deregulated, would be encouraged to try new and different ways of achieving success with students, and judged only on the results they get.”

Several superintendents suggested greater flexibility in how they can spend state funds.

The 90 percent response rate shows that what the Legislature does matters a lot. Upcoming columns will focus on several of these suggestions. Final legislative decisions are several months away, so concerned readers can share their views with legislators.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, is director of the Center for School Change in St. Paul. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].