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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Minnesota's Dark Educational Future

April 16, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Minnesota's public schools, once national educational leaders, are in retreat. We're sliding backwards, surrendering learning breadth and depth to conservative no-new-taxes orthodoxy.  Many Minnesotans will suffer so that a few may gain.

Simply declaring this truth, combined with cogent observations about a 15 percent real state educational funding cut since 2003, does a disservice to Minnesota's future. The risk isn't sinking in. So, let me lay it out.

The world moves forward but Minnesota, at best, is standing still. That means Minnesota is being left behind. As a state, we've traditionally bet on education to create an innovative, flexible workforce. Married with our work ethic, it creates economic prosperity. We have been, comparatively, more prosperous than a state of our relative size and geographic location merits.

Minnesota, at its core, is an extractive industry state. We grow crops, raise livestock, cut timber, and mine ore, sending it around the world. Minnesota began to accumulate wealth when we began processing raw materials, creating value-added products before selling them. Creating value requires an educated, capable workforce. Minnesota's schools, in turn, delivered on our investment in them.

Minnesota prospered because Minnesota schools produced.

Today, the future doesn't look so bright. St Paul Schools will close a high school and six other schools. The Le Sueur-Henderson district is switching to a four-day school week as will a growing handful of other rural schools in what's clearly the next step in school cost-cutting measures. St Paul is likely to eliminate middle school sports and elementary music programs. So are many, many other Minnesota schools. These steps represent a trend's acceleration, not anomalies.

We once debated school innovation strategy. Were charter schools better than magnet schools? Was school choice improving performance? Does whole language curriculum produce stronger students? Smart, career professionals invested decades of time, energy, and effort in these questions, pursuing the simple goal of educating students.
That was then.

Now, teachers anxiously pare curriculum in favor of narrow subject drilling, seeking an acceptable No Child Left Behind test score declaring, under rising yearly performance expectations, that the teacher, the class, the school and the district aren't failing. The score doesn't recognize excellence, only the absence of failure. Every year, however, failure's standard grows until 2014 when every student in every school in every district must pass the MCA-II exam for the school to not fail.

Under conservative public educational policy, student achievement is increasingly devoid of learning's joy. It's becoming the school equivalent of clock-punching, industrial factory work in 1925.

Realistically, education's general decline will reach the point where more drastic steps will be required. Unless educational funding priorities change and improve, Minnesotans must be prepared for educational rationing.

We have rationing now, of course. It's the complex, shared funding mechanism that blends traditional, local property tax based support with state of Minnesota generated monies. No school gets or has ever received as much money as they'd like. That's the resource rationing part.

No, I'm talking about something much darker and more insidious. The new rationing will facilitate greater class disparity, creating a stark educational investment continuum. Some students, presumably bright capable, students, will receive a disproportionately greater share of educational resources while most students will receive a minimal amount. Those students will, in growing numbers, be tracked into non-higher education required programs. Likely, formal schooling will end somewhere between 14 and 16. The better, brighter few will continue on to university and graduate education. They, in turn, will enjoy education's life-time earning enhancement rewards. Their children, exposed to a greater level of educational investment, will be more likely to emerge as the next wave of bright, capable students.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? This is exactly how most of the world's schools operate. Class, a remarkably fluid experience in Minnesota and America, will become more fixed. Educational research strongly suggests that family educational achievement predicts the next generation's school performance. More kids from less-educated families create an accumulative downward poverty spiral rather than an upward prosperity trajectory.
We can, of course, stop and then reverse this educational slide, but real leadership is required. State policymakers will have to make difficult choices, abandoning conservative tax policy in favor of a progressive structure. Their best efforts haven't produced change to date so considerably greater effort is required.

Change and improvement in schools, to say nothing of a return to genuine innovation, will take time and money. Minnesota's educational investments have been coasting for a decade. Together, we can create a new educational outcome that creates prosperity. Let's put our shoulder to the wheel and move Minnesota's schools forward.

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