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An all-out bipartisan attack on education achievement gaps will help state economy grow

Republican Charlie Weaver is one of the most respected voices of corporate Minnesota.

Republican Charlie Weaver is one of the most respected voices of corporate Minnesota. And his friendly welcome to Democratic Gov.-elect Mark Dayton in a recent op-ed sent an important signal that Democrats concerned about economic justice and Republicans focused on economic growth must work together for a broader prosperity.

The most important area of likely common ground that Weaver outlined in his Star Tribune op-ed was this: “We need world-class education.”

Weaver, a former legislator and chief-of-staff for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, now executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership (comprising the CEOs of our largest companies) went on to specify that “outright failure when it comes to teaching students of color” is a major threat to Minnesota’s economy-building educational excellence — once considered first-class, now not so much.

That Weaver highlighted the racial achievement gap in Minnesota was particularly relevant because the new majorities in the Legislature might be gunning for a major redistribution of public school money and a reworking of the formulas that on the surface seem to favor beleaguered urban school districts.

Common-sense ideas
Reworking those formulas to increase funding for financially stressed suburban and rural schools, and intensified pressure to improve teaching methods and to focus on better results in urban schools, makes common sense.

But it would be an especially big blunder — and damaging to our long-term economic future — to cut that money for urban districts without an ambitious and workable plan to improve achievement and attainment for students of color.

That’s because the future face of Minnesota will be much more colorful, and putting anything less than our full energy toward closing the widening equality gap would be like cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Our student body is already far more diverse than the larger population and, given our current level of underinvestment, represents a ripe opportunity for more economic creativity and productivity.

A growing nonwhite population
Minnesota’s nonwhite population is projected to grow to 25 percent by 2035, up from about 2 percent in the early 1970s and up from about 15 percent currently.

Any open-minded inquiry into the roots of educational dysfunction ends up at the realization that concentrations of poverty, and economic and de-facto racial segregation, wreak extraordinary damage on a community and on the human condition.

And as the concentration of poverty rises, the costs of addressing it rise disproportionately.

Many studies in recent years point to this phenomenon, and one of the better recent expositions on the subject is a University of Maryland research paper (still in draft form but available here) on the plight of Baltimore.

The report suggests that the best answer is a “holistic” or “total community” approach. And it’s our good fortune in Minnesota to see at least two of those kinds of efforts under way: St. Paul’s new “Promise Neighborhood” initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, and the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis.

Despair and cynicism about our ability as a community to do anything about poverty and economic inequality has become popular, and it’s sadly become a major refrain of the anti-government Tea Party crowd.

A sense of fatigue
Even among the philanthropic community one hears a sense of fatigue and a feeling that nothing seems to be working, apart from a few isolated and charismatic leaders typified by Geoffrey Canada in the recent movie “Waiting for Superman.”

The fact is that millions of urban kids and students of color are doing better, despite the colossal market failures in 2008 and 2009 that have put additional stress on their parents and most middle-income and lower-income families.

Released this month, a comprehensive study dubbed “Building a Grad Nation,” by the group America’s Promise Alliance, reports real progress finally is being made in arresting the “high school dropout epidemic” that began damaging America’s economy in the early 1980s.

Overall graduation rates in the United States rose three full percentage points from 2002 to 2008, according the study, while the number of high schools classified as “dropout factories” has declined sharply.

‘Some progress’ in Minnesota
Tennessee and New York achieved the biggest turnaround in high school graduation; Minnesota, in part because our graduation rate already was one of the highest, was cited among about a third of states that had made “some progress.”

Minnesota’s graduation rate improved from 83.9 percent to 86.4 percent over that period, or by 2.5 percentage points, which was better than the national average of 2.3 percent.

President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, widely criticized by both liberals and conservatives, at least has had the effect of focusing energy and attention on this national security interest and establishing once and for all that the federal government has responsibility for educational outcomes.

President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top proposal, also faulted by both left and right, may have the same impact of capturing attention and imagination and moving the nation toward his goal of regaining our international status as the most highly educated nation.

Both of the dominant political parties in the U.S. and Minnesota should claim as a top priority improving education and closing the racial achievement gap, because both are closely linked with economic growth and justice.

In fact, Harvard University economist Edward L. Glaeser, not considered an ideological or partisan voice, suggested in a recent New York Times column that Republicans would improve their chances of regaining the presidency “if they align their party as closely with education as it once was with military strength.”

Glaeser concludes that “the Republican Party can position itself as the party of national rebirth, but only if it champions both economic freedom and education — the two critical ingredients of successful entrepreneurial economies.”

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure. A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.