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What education insiders are hoping for in Minnesota’s next ed commissioner

The commissioner needs to bring a renewed sense of urgency, experts agree. “We’ve got huge educational gaps, opportunity gaps,” said St. Paul Public Schools Supt. Joe Gothard. “We need some drastic catalyst for change right now.”

Gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz
MinnPost file photo by Annabelle Marcovici
Gov.-elect Tim Walz’s 20 years of experience as a teacher — including in the Mankato Area Public Schools district — has generated a lot of excitement among rural educators.
Gov.-elect Tim Walz’s transition into office marks a notable first in state history. He is the first governor to succeed a two-term governor of the same party.

This continuity in Democratic governance could present an opportunity for Walz to further advance a number of Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature initiatives, like funding for all-day kindergarten and free pre-K. But there are also plenty of initiatives that educators and advocates would like to see Walz and his administration take in a new direction.

Walz has been vetting some of this input. He and his transition team just completed a five-day listening tour across the state, stirring up interest in whom he’ll appoint to serve on his leadership team. A big part of that, says Kayla Castaneda, a spokesperson for Walz’s transition team, was hearing constituents give input on the qualities they’re looking for in the next education commissioner.

“Lots of folks were interested in having a commissioner who has a priority of making sure there’s equity in education funding, so kids receive a quality education, no matter their ZIP code,” Castaneda said, noting this message was consistent across the state, but especially pronounced in Greater Minnesota.

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The deadline for candidates to apply for leadership positions within the Walz administration is Dec. 7. (The application submission instructions can be found here.)

It’s plausible that the current state education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, could be re-appointed under Walz. (Update: Late Wednesday morning, Cassellius issued a memo to her staff stating, “Last night I communicated to Governor-elect Walz and Lt. Governor-elect Flanagan’s transition team and with Governor Dayton’s office that I will not seek reappointment … . Making this decision was not easy, and I took months to discern if it was the right one. But at the end of the day, I know that change brings new opportunity. …”)

Joe Gothard
MinnPost file photo by Erin Hinrichs
Joe Gothard
Experts agree that the next education commissioner needs to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the work.

“We’ve got huge educational gaps, opportunity gaps,” said Joe Gothard, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools. “We need some drastic catalyst for change right now, and it comes by way of funding and also policy changes to help us do our jobs.”

Bernadeia Johnson, former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools district, adds that this person has to not only be comfortable with “complexity and ambiguity,” but also capable of leaning into issues of “race, equity and excellence.”

“I add race in there, intentionally, because people talk about equity and race is absent from the narrative,” she said. “I believe that people have to be able to have the courage to talk about the issues that are real. Our achievement gap is inequitable — there are disparate outcomes and disparities, and they are all along racial lines, even when you factor in socioeconomics. So you have to kind of call it out.”

Key attributes

Walz’s 20 years of experience as a teacher — including in the Mankato Area Public Schools district — has generated a lot of excitement among rural educators, who expect that he will be a strong advocate for schools outside of the metro area. Many are hoping this affinity will be something his pick for education commissioner shares as well.   

“I think he’s going to need a commissioner that will also be able to understand both the metro scene and also Greater Minnesota,” said Lee Carlson, incoming president of the Minnesota Rural Education Association who currently teaches in the St. James Public Schools district. “That’s why I feel a bit like it needs to be someone from Greater Minnesota, because I think we understand where St. Paul, Minneapolis are. And I think if you’re in the metro, it’s really hard to connect to the idea of someone who drives a bus, and does the play, and coaches three sports, and teaches five different subjects, and does lunch duty and all that kind of stuff.”

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Carlson also cautions that coming from a more rural education background is not enough. To truly serve rural schools well, the next education commissioner will need to invest in listening to rural educators, in their own communities.

“We don’t need [the Minnesota Department of Education] to come out and fix everything. We’d actually just like them to listen to how we made it work better before this new mandate or that regulation came down,” he said.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, takes this qualification around being able to incorporate the teacher experience a step further.


specht photo

Denise Specht

“I know a teacher can run the state of Minnesota, and I know a teacher can run the Minnesota Department of Education” (MDE), she said. “I think it all starts in the classroom. If it won’t work there, it won’t work anywhere.”

She adds that she and her members are also looking for the “anti-Betsy DeVos,” meaning someone who’s “knowledgeable, compassionate and has relevant experience” to lead MDE.

Others have set a higher priority on the next education commissioner’s credentials as an education leader — someone whom all lawmakers can respect as an expert in the field — since this position entails working closely with state legislators and being able to bring people across the education sector together.

“We need a person that knows how to navigate the various tentacles of the system — a person that has great public relations skills, communication skills. We think that people that have served as superintendents fill those requirement,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, agrees that experience as a superintendent is key.

“The commissioner job is really an implementation job, and a listening job,” he said. “The idea is you really have to have a track record of pulling together teachers, communities, school board members, administrators to improve the education outcomes and opportunities for kids.”

Professional experience aside, Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, highlighted a key qualification voiced by others: that Walz’s pick prioritize students and families above the adults in the system.

“They’re going to have to be courageous to push back against the status quo and to be a change agent,” he said. “It’s easy to have that focus shift, because often times in an agency your interactions will primarily be with people from the system.”

He’s optimistic about the new education accountability plan that the state recently adopted — the North Star system, the state’s version of the federally mandated Every Student Succeeds Act. But he wants to see a greater sense of urgency around stagnant academic outcomes coming out of MDE, in a way that’s easy for families to understand.

“I think what we’ve not had is a good honest conversation about how our kids are doing in some key areas,” he said.

School funding

Chronic shortfalls in school funding — made insurmountable at the local level by underfunded state and federally mandated services for special education students and English language learners, along with allocations that haven’t kept pace with inflation — keep this issue at the top of nearly everyone’s agenda in the education sector.

While Dayton honored the funding pledge he took when he entered office — to provide an increase in E-12 funding each year of his administration — many are hoping this is one issue that Walz and his administration will handle a bit more aggressively.

“We still haven’t caught up to the challenges that existed in the early 2000s, where there were years where we got zero increase in the formula,” Amoroso said. “We’re still playing catch up. There are still districts that are making budget cuts.”

Jim Bartholomew
Minnesota Business Partnership
Jim Bartholomew
Speaking on the behalf of a district that has struggled to rebound from years of multimillion-dollar budgetary deficits, Gothard adds he’s looking for the next administration to put a long-range state funding plan in place.

“It’s simply ridiculous that year in and year out we have to cut the very programs that we’ve built — that our students want, our families want, that people value,” he said. “So we’re looking to just create that sustainable future.”

This impacts course offerings districts are able to provide, including classes focused on the trades. Given Walz’s talk around the state’s workforce needs, Gothard adds he’s hopeful that this shared vision — to better match the workforce supply with current demands — will translate into more funding to “prioritize the experiences we want our students to have to fill those vital roles in the workforce.”

In order to better curb the chaos that districts face every year, in having to make hiring and firing decisions before they know exactly how much funding they’re getting from the state, Nolan says the next administration should be more upfront with its commitment to increasing school funding each year.

“Governor Dayton never put a forecasted amount in. It was always starting from zero and zero,” Nolan said. “And while we appreciated the increases each year — and they were essential — having had that experience, we’re saying that still was disruptive to the education system, in the sense that districts could not predict, they could not make long-term commitments.”

Early education

Dayton’s education legacy has largely revolved around advancing early learning opportunities for all students in the state. His early-education funding asks have become a lynchpin in end-of-session negotiations, because while it’s something most people are generally in support of, there’s disagreement over how to best expand access to these programs.

Walz’s education platform includes supporting universal pre-K for all students. But he, along with the support of his education commissioner, will need to find a way to break the stalemate at the state Capitol if they want to further advance this initiative.

Bartholomew says Walz and his commissioner will need to refocus the conversation: “If we can do that, we can hopefully break that log jam and focus on families most in need first. Down the road, as we make progress and resources become available, we can expand that scope.”

Acooa Ellis
Acooa Ellis
Speaking as co-chair of the MinneMinds Coalition, which advocates for the needs of the state’s earliest learners, Acooa Ellis, senior vice president of community impact for Greater Twin Cities United Way, says she doesn’t necessarily think a “fresh start” is what’s needed in this arena.

“There’s a lot of success and momentum that I think, if embraced by Walz, could help him establish some early wins,” she said.

On the supply side of early childcare and learning, she says providers need better access to the state’s quality rating system, Parent Aware, and making sure the system factors in culturally relevant criteria. On the demand side, she says that means fully utilizing Child Care Assistance Program dollars to support low-income families in accessing these programs.

Ann Mulholland, the coalition’s other co-chair who serves as vice president of community impact for the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations, hopes to see Walz and his administration pivot toward prioritizing access for families that couldn’t otherwise access high-quality early childhood programs — a strategy that Republican lawmakers have been more adamant about employing.

“I think the disagreement comes in the how. That’s where the principles of keeping equity in the center, meeting parents were they’re at, creating flexibility for families, focusing on low-income children zero to five, and making sure that it’s high-quality — those are the key tenants we would encourage the administration to focus on,” she said. “If you hold onto those, I think you are able to cross political lines.”

Teacher diversity

Conversations about the state’s persistent achievement gaps often involve calls for a very specific resource: more teachers of color. That’s because research shows that having teachers of color in the classroom positively impacts student learning, especially for students of color, who often lack the opportunity to connect with an educator that they identify with from a racial and cultural standpoint.

Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Bernadeia Johnson
“There’s a pretty strong belief that if you diversity those that are in the system — the adults, the teachers, the administrators — that the inequities start getting eliminated,” Mulholland said, highlighting the existing disparities in suspension and expulsion rates that the state Department of Human Rights recently called out as a prime example of an interrelated issue.

Dayton and Cassellius made some notable progress on this front — namely in providing state funding to support a number of new Grow Your Own programs that seek to remove barriers to teacher licensure for teachers of color. But there is still a lot of opportunity for the incoming administration to be more aggressive on this front.

For instance, Mulholland says, the state could do more to “incent and strengthen relationships between those who are producing the teachers and those who are hiring the teachers,” so that higher-education teacher prep programs are producing a more diverse pool of teacher candidates.

Johnson adds that Walz and his education commissioner need to take a stronger stance on Last In First Out policies, which prioritizes layoffs based on seniority. Under Dayton, the Legislature repealed the contentious LIFO policy from state statute as the default for districts and union leaders who can’t reach an agreement during negotiations on how layoffs should otherwise be handled. But that didn’t necessarily ensure changes to this policy actually happened at the local level.

“The fact of the matter is they’re the last ones to be hired and when in a budget shortfall, they’re the first ones to go,” Johnson said. “I think there should be a real look at LIFO.”

Bo Thao-Urabe
Bo Thao-Urabe
Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, points out there are other key ways for the next education commissioner to better support students of color. For instance, she hopes her coalition’s efforts to better disaggregate student data, by race and ethnicity, will continue to shed new light on the unique needs of various student subgroups.

She also hopes this person brings a renewed commitment to framing multicultural, multilingual students as an asset, rather than a deficit. And that all students are better represented in the curriculums schools use, to ensure “every child learns about his or her classmates … not just kids of color learning about themselves,” she said.

“I think they’re committed to building a diverse Cabinet that carries forth a lot of the things they talked about on their campaign trail,” she added. “So I’m hoping that we do see a stronger commitment from the state, on that front. And we don’t just leave it to the districts that often have the most diverse student populations to figure it out and then follow their lead.”