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.”
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.”