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MN2020 Journal: Lessons from the Old Mapleton School

October 23, 2009 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Education is a labor-intensive business. Fixed costs-building maintenance, utilities, bond payments, that sort of thing-constitute significant budgetary line items but people are the great expense. Funding reductions, particularly persistent funding reductions, means fewer people are engaged in teaching or supporting teaching. Consequently, education is spread more thinly among a school's students.

We could get into all sorts of complex economic analysis, embracing or rejecting models for measuring financial health, examining systemic impacts or calculating marginal utility, but let's keep this simple. If the number of students remains constant, an inverse relationship between financial inputs and staff is observed. In other words, more money lowers the student-to-teacher ratio while less money raises it.

If you're wondering why class size has grown over the past six or seven years, the answer is entirely revealed in this relationship.

Again, I'm simplifying this argument to make my point but too many kids in a classroom dilute the total educational quality. Your kids won't be as competitive in a global marketplace requiring extraordinary worker intelligence and flexibility because they couldn't hear, couldn't see, or couldn't connect with the teacher.

This is critical back-drop to teacher contract negotiations. Most Minnesota schools are hanging on, hoping that, miracle of miracles, state leaders somehow increase educational funding and giving school districts more options. No one really believes this will happen. A decrease, in fact, is the more probable outcome.

A few school districts, such as Farmington, have come to teaching contract terms. All sides' perspective is best revealed in local teacher union president Todd Karich's observation, quoted in the Farmington Independent. "It's good for where we're at right now."

Which, is another way of saying that it hasn't always been like this.

Twenty years ago, I was a new history graduate student. My grandmother asked me to help her write her township school's history for a Mapleton, Minnesota community history. I dug into state archives because historians examine documentary records. They proved valuable.

Mapleton was founded on the Maple River in southern Minnesota's Blue Earth County. When the railroad came through, several miles away, the city relocated next to the tracks, a fairly common practice for small pre-railroad towns.

The original community was referred to as "Old Mapleton" while the new site was called "Mapleton Station." With commercial action shifting to the railroad site, Mapleton dropped the "station" and Old Mapleton became little more than a country school-my grandmother's girlhood school.

Studying state records dutifully composed and submitted by Blue Earth County, I could track the district's change. Two items caught my eye. The first was the shift to a more permanent teacher base. Single women teachers with one or two years' tenure were eventually replaced by married women who would frequently teach for six or eight years.

The second issue was teacher pay. It climbed modestly but steadily until the Great Depression when it was halved.

The Depression in rural Minnesota did not begin with Wall Street's 1929 crash. Rather, it started in roughly 1925 as war-recovered Europe returned to full agricultural production, effectively closing or reducing that market to American farmers. Farm productivity, financed during flush times, stalled as prices retreated. Farmers, unable to meet dept payment obligations, began defaulting on loans. That bad debt compounded risky, unregulated stock market speculation and the whole financial system collapsed like a house of cards.

Mapleton township farmers, by 1930, were uncomfortably familiar with declining revenues. Budgets were dramatically tightened, including the township's school teacher's salary.

Conservative public policy advocates might, I suppose, suggest that our time parallels this earlier tough period and that Minnesotans ought to again slash teacher salaries by 50%. That would be an incorrect reading of history.

The Great Depression was a life-defining 20 year experience, not a couple of tight quarters. After World War II, driven by that memory and armed with a keen appreciation for a complex world, Mapleton dramatically expanded its schools. It closed the one-room country schools, built a bigger town school, bought buses to transport farm kids, hired more teachers and expanded the school year.

Three generations later, that investment still yields strong community returns. We can and should learn much from Mapleton because it's a story of advancement, not retreat. The most basic lessons are the most important.

We do not live in 1930 Mapleton township. Our children's education is not finished in the eighth grade. We have a deeper appreciation for the competitive future we face and the need to adequately and deeply prepare for it. We need reasonable student-to-teacher ratios and we absolutely count on a highly professional teacher corps.

A strong education is every Minnesotan's path forward. That lesson is truer today than it was back in the day.

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