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Meet Rep. Ron Kresha, the man behind two of the most controversial education bills at the state Capitol

Rep. Ron Kresha
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Rep. Ron Kresha says he’s acting in the best interest of students and parents.

Last Thursday morning, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, rushed from an 8:15 a.m. House Education Innovation Policy meeting to a 10:15 a.m. House taxes meeting to present two high-profile education bills he’d authored, with little room to recharge from the impassioned debate in between.

The first bill he presented, which is centered on student discipline, proposes removing the word “willful” from the state’s Pupil Fair Dismissal Act — a modification that would allow educators to remove students from the classroom for acts they deem inappropriate or unsafe, without proof that the student had intended to cause harm or intended to violate school policy.

This comes on the heels of a state Supreme Court ruling over the summer that had asserted that a student’s intent, in fact, does matter. In the case of Alyssa Drescher, an honor student at United South Central High in southern Minnesota, the court said she had been wrongfully expelled for accidentally bringing a pocket knife to school, which she said she’d forgotten in her purse after using it to do farm chores.  

In the wake of a national debate over school choice and school vouchers, Kresha's second bill proposes a tax credit that would incentivize charitable giving to foundations to offer K-12 scholarships for qualified students that could be used to attend private schools.

Both have generated quite a bit of controversy at the Capitol, as demonstrated by the full slate of testifiers — both supporters and critics of Kresha’s bills — that managed to make it to the hearings Thursday morning.

Through it all, Kresha maintains he’s acting in the best interest of students and parents.

“I’m not advocating for any special interest group. I’m really advocating for kids and parents,” he said in an interview with MinnPost. “I have the discipline bill that came from conversations that we have to do a better job and figure it out. The opportunity scholarships bill that I’m carrying, that has come to me from parents — and primarily parents of color — that have said, ‘We want to give our kids choices that we see other people have that we don’t.’ And I’ve been listening to that.”

Now that he’s positioned himself on the front line of two of the most heated education debates at the Capitol this session, his bills prompt a couple of questions: Why is he so vested in these education issues? And how did he wind up smack dab in the middle of the debates over school choice and student discipline?

Brokering the discipline debate

In perhaps one of the more intense exchanges over Kresha’s student discipline bill on Thursday, Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, asked to see a show of hands of constituents in support of the bill to make a simple point: Support from students and parents of color — those disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline practices — was largely absent, at least in the room. She then implored him to run bills like this through an equity lense before bringing them to committee for consideration.

In response, Kresha framed himself as a mediator of sorts. “You can cast me however you want, [but] I’m the guy who crosses party lines all the time,” he said, adding that he has a track record of going to bat for minority groups, students facing suspension, and some of the state’s most vulnerable youth.

In his concluding remarks, he reiterated a disclaimer he prefaced his bill with — that he, himself, isn’t entirely sure where he falls on the issue. His intent, he said, was to create a space for this important conversation to take place, by bringing the concerns of school administrators to the table and listening to the concerns of those on the other side of the issue as well. But his plea for understanding — “I’m sorry I’m born this color” — only served to heighten tensions in the room.

Reflecting on that hearing, inside his office yesterday morning, Kresha said students of color probably are being overly represented when it comes to suspensions and expulsions, but he’s also sympathetic to the fact that teachers and administrators are charged with creating a safe, productive learning environment and don’t always have the necessary supports to investigate a student’s intent when they misbehave.

“It did take a bit of a turn that I thought wasn’t helpful,” Kresha said of the hearing. “I get these things are emotional, but I was trying to make policy conversations. At the end, it became more about other issues and certainly tensions and fragmentations among communities of color.”

As for the criticism brought against the makeup of his testifiers, Kresha says that portrayal was skewed. “What we didn’t see was in the hallway, the administrators of color that I was talking to,” he said. “We didn’t see the whole breadth of people that were behind this.”

Characterizations of his bill aside, Kresha says he’s motivated to facilitate this debate around the fate of the “willful” qualifier, in large part, due to his own experiences as an educator in Ivanhoe, Minnesota, where he says he saw kids with ADHD or other learning issues being mischaracterized as having behavioral problems. He also draws upon his experience working with the Onamia Public Schools district, he says, where he witnessed the tensions among administrators and school police liaisons rise as Native American students engaged in gang activity that had migrated out from the metro area.

“I think what that taught me is people just have to go back to talking about these issues. As hard as they can be, as emotionally charged as they are,” he said of Thursday’s debate. “If we’re not willing to set aside all of our preconceived notions and just have a conversation, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Repeating what he’s already said on multiple occasions, Kresha stressed he won’t push for this proposed legislation to move forward unless the two sides reach some compromises. It’s an outcome that seems rather unlikely, at this point, given the fact that even a legislative task force tasked with digging into student discipline issues failed to reach consensus around the term “willful.”

“For me, personally, when I see an issue, I just knock the door down and say, “OK, let’s talk about this.’ And we’re getting people talking about this,” Kresha said. “I know it’s not going to be an easy issue to solve, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”

School choice

His tax credit bill — which would allocate $35 million in public dollars a year to incentivize individual and corporation donations in support of K-12 scholarship that students could use to attend private or parochial schools — has put him on the defensive as well. Under his proposed legislation, a married couple could qualify for $21,000 in credits, and corporations would max out at $105,000.

Echoing the concerns of staunch public education advocates, several of his colleagues have raised issue with the legality and merits of opening up an avenue for indirectly routing public dollars to religious private schools.

But that hasn’t rattled Kresha.

“What’s crystal clear to me is — and I get this through child protection, all the kids that I’ve worked with — that there are kids that, through no fault of their own, are born into a situation that they can’t control,” he told Minnpost yesterday. “And when we eliminate their choices, we eliminate their paths out. I’m all about 'Let’s open up your possibilities.' ”

As he interprets state statute, the state’s job is to offer options. It’s the parent's job, he says, to decide how or where their children will receive instruction. And, in some cases, the preferred option happens to be a tuition-based private school that’s become a beacon of hope in a poor community.

“Let’s give [donors] one more option that says, ‘Why not invest right back into your community where you have really, really tough situations where kids are in disadvantaged homes that could use a way out? Why not use your dollars to help them?’” he said. “People have made this into a school choice issue. It really isn’t. What it is, is a community that’s donating to their community to see kids with a path for success.”

He’s been backing opportunity scholarships for preschoolers for the past six years, he says — a track record he’d like to think sets him ahead of the national school choice trend.

His personal tie to education issues goes back even further. Kresha started out as an English teacher in Ivanhoe. Then he took a job focusing on curriculum and technology in the central Minnesota area and eventually moved on to work for an online education company. For the past eight years, he’s been working for an economic marketing and development company.

As a parent, he’s experienced both the private and public education systems. He has five children — one in the Air Force, one in college, one in high school, one in middle school and one in grade school — who all started out attending the local Catholic school and have, or will, graduate from Little Falls High School.

Whether he’s trying to navigate through a spectrum of experiences and testimonies at home or at the Capitol, he says he does his best to keep an open mind.  

“One of the things that I do is I always walk around with the idea that I could be wrong,” he said. “And I want to hear from everybody else because, if I’m wrong, I want to know so I can fix it. That always leads me to understand whatever the other side is.”

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Comments (5)

meeting kids needs

The supreme court case concerning willful dismissal concerned a rural student who inadvertently brought a knife to school. Yes, we ask a lot from our schools, but why is it so much to ask that they take the time to learn more about why a child acted against a policy and then determine the result consistent with such individual considerations? How are kids needs met if a school can't bother with finding out why a misbehavior occurred? It's reported today that the Bush Foundation will be making a huge investment in individualizing education. Why can't we make a far more minimal investment in individualizing response to misbehavior, and in a manner which encourages hearing from the student? That's how kids needs get met for the long-term -- being listened to and made a partner in the solution

I do wonder if the author is accurate in that intent must be looked into for any removal from the classroom. The supreme court case involved an expulsion. Perhaps -- though I'm not certain and the author should confirm it -- it can be read to include suspensions. But removal from classroom can and does often occur without suspension. And it's either sloppy reporting or a misleading promotion of the bill to suggest that without this new law a child who can't settle down and needs a time out away from the classroom must first be screened as to whether he/she willfully disrupted the class.

A former practitioner

I'm inclined toward Michael Friedman's first paragraph. Intent makes a huge difference, and offhand, I can't think of a rational reason for a school administration, not to mention a school district, to ascertain intent before banishing someone from school when all the available data points strongly to the conclusion that expulsion usually has life-long deleterious effects. Making at least some attempt to discover intent seems to me crucial to providing some minimal level of fairness to disciplinary proceedings.

Mr. Kresha's own statements during the hearing on his bill suggest strongly that he wants HIS intent to be considered. Odd, than, that a student's intent doesn't apparently carry similar weight when it's the student's future that might well be on the line. If it were up to me, and it isn't, I'd have a tough time supporting Mr. Kresha's first bill.

I'd have an even tougher time supporting his second one. Absolute separation of church and state is a vital, crucial component of a democratic society. Theocracies historically do not allow for what's usually called "free thought," nor do they tolerate serious dissent. Taxpayer dollars should not be appropriated to support religious education, well-intended or not, effective or not. If you want your children to go to the local Catholic or Muslim school, you should be prepared to support that school with your own dollars, freely contributed, but it's both unfair and unconstitutional to expect your Jewish or Southern Baptist neighbors to help pay for such education via their tax dollars, nor should the reverse be expected.

The relevant provision in the Minnesota Constitution requires a "uniform" school system, and legislation to promote competing school systems, especially when taxpayer-supported, does nothing to promote that constitutional goal. Mr. Kresha's intent may be "open-minded" (I'm suspicious), but the effect of his proposal would be anything but benign.

Well Said

On both issues.

One of my biggest fears is the escalating disregard to separation of state and church.

No religion has a place in public education, health care, science, civil law, etc. Religion is a personal choice and should not be be inflicted on anyone else. I do not think any government funds should be spent on religious education. Sending your kids to a religious school is your choice and you should be solely responsible for the cost. I also do not want anyone telling me, or enacting civil law, based on their belief system which may not correspond with mine.

Warning: anecdote ahead

I tutor in a St. Paul middle school 4 periods per week. My 5 years of tutoring before this involved one on one efforts. This year, I'm in the classroom, working with 7th and 8th graders. I'm also a lawyer, largely retired.

As I read this piece, I tried to imagine how the willful standard could be applied in the chaos I witness most periods I am in the classroom. I'm still thinking and finding it difficult to think of any way a willful standard can be applied consistently by a teacher, working alone in a classroom, and still manage to salvage some time for instruction. Perhaps the classes in which I work are outriders. I hope so.

I will say no more, as I don't want to identify the school, the classroom, or the students. I would appreciate, however, hearing from teachers and administrators required to apply the willful standard and how they go about doing so.

I am a little bit confused

I am a little bit confused with Mr. Kresha proposal: Does he think that the girl who accidentally brought a knife into school should have been punished as if she brought it in with the intent to injure someone? If so, it is a ridiculous idea. I am a strong supporter of discipline in school and think that disruptive students do not belong there but not the ones who happen to one time violate “zero-tolerance” rules by accident. On the other hand, this should not be a racial issue by any means and bringing race in is inexcusable.

As for the second proposal, we have to remember that not all private schools are religious schools. And to exclude support of religion, it may be possible to give less support to those attending religious schools, proportionally to religious part of the curriculum. On the other hand, if ALL religions are equally supported, at least potentially, I am not sure I can see a state-church separation problem here.