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A Hollow Response to Education

January 20, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota schools have been strangled by years of neglect. Schools now receive 14 percent less in state funding than they did in 2003. This has forced most districts to make budget cuts based not on what is best for the student, but what fits the state's biannual balance sheet.

It was with this history that Gov. Tim Pawlenty made his State of the State address last week. The several education policy measures he outlined solved none of the state's education problems.

The state faces a budget deficit in the billions. When the governor said education funding would not be cut, he meant that it would only be cut by the amount costs rise over the next two years, adding to the 14 percent loss already accrued since 2003.

The governor did offer two financial incentives for education programs.

He wants to "pay school districts for results," he said. "I propose we increase school district funding by up to an additional 2 percent per student for students meeting standards or at least showing reasonable growth towards (sic) achievement."

Unfortunately, those students who "meet standards or show reasonable growth" are not spread equally throughout the state. According to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 64 percent of Minnesota students eligible for free lunch performed at a basic level in math, while 87 percent of those not eligible for the free lunch program were operating at a basic level. Similarly, 86 percent of white eighth-graders performed at or above a basic level, while only 48 percent of African American students, 56 percent of Hispanic students and 57 percent of Native American students were operating at a basic level. The policy would only serve to grow the achievement gap and divide Minnesotans.

The governor also pushed his initiative called the "Teacher Transformation Act." One portion of this plan seeks to attract "the best and the brightest" to teach in Minnesota - a difficult task since Minnesota won't pay to attract the best and brightest in the country. Minnesota's starting teaching salary in 2007 was an abysmal $33,000 and the average teacher salary is ranked 16th in the nation, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

The governor called for a change in how labor negotiations are conducted. Sources at Education Minnesota say that his claim that "nearly 40 other states settle school labor disputes using a fair arbitration process" is closer to 20 with 10 that are mandatory.

In none of these proposals did the governor address increasing things we know improves student performance: lower class sizes; better equipment, buildings and books; more education through longer school days or years; and most importantly salaries that are in line with the role teachers play in our society.

Minnesota cries out for education policies that will make our schools better, open opportunities for students, and the investment that will make that happen. What our state doesn't need is more smoke.


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