In the fall of 2020, the majority of public school districts across the state of Minnesota will ask voters to choose among newcomers and incumbents seeking a seat on their local school boards.
That list includes the state’s third largest school district — Minneapolis Public Schools — where three district seats and one at-large seat will be on the ballot.
These are the types of ballot questions that often get overshadowed by city, county, state and national races — especially during a presidential election year. At the same time, school boards shape education policy, practice and outcomes that’ll impact students across the state.
Given Minnesota’s stagnant education disparities by race, income level and special education status — in everything from exclusionary discipline practices and standardized test scores to access to advanced courses and graduation rates — school board members hold a great deal of power and responsibility.
Before the news cycle gets inundated with campaign coverage, here’s a brief rundown of five education issues worth tuning in to as you consider candidates’ education platforms — whether they’re running for school board, the Legislature or any other public office.
1. School funding shortfalls
It doesn’t matter if you live in the Twin Cities, the suburbs or Greater Minnesota — schools districts have come to rely on voter-approved referendums to help cover everything from building upgrades to general operating costs. And residents in property-poor districts get hit harder than those in property-rich districts — meaning they often pay more in taxes to support a school funding ask of equal or lesser amount than one in a district with a high-value property tax base.
Over the years, the Minnesota Legislature has increased education spending, a bucket that already accounts for a large segment of the state budget. But those increases have fallen far short of the special education costs and inflationary expenses that districts are on the hook to cover. That often means cuts to programming and staff and increased class sizes. It also means schools are strapped when it comes to adding more school counselors, mental health workers and other student support staff.
During the upcoming legislative session, expect to hear a lot of familiar pitches about the need to address chronic school funding shortfalls. Then there’s this bit of foreshadowing, from Denise Specht, president of the state’s teachers union: “Education Minnesota plans to be walk-out ready by March 1, 2021. No matter what the outcome of Election 2020, we WILL be demanding full funding for public education.”
2. Keeping students safe
From active shooter drills to hiring more school resource officers to fortifying school entrances — by adding secure entry vestibules and shatter-proof glass and the like — schools across the state are taking added measures to keep students safe from school shootings.
On the preventive end, they are also working to build out mental health supports for students. But demand continues to far outpaces supply in Minnesota, home to one of the worst school-counselor-to-student ratios in the nation. Watch for more efforts to bring these resources into schools, where they’re able to reach students who might otherwise struggle to access mental health services on their own.
These student support teams are proving critical when it comes to tackling another emerging health crisis in schools: vaping. The state of Minnesota recently announced that it’s suing Juul for targeting youth in its marketing of e-cigarette products. Meanwhile, schools are scrambling to curb the rising vaping epidemic that’s impacting their students.
3. Persistent discipline disparities
Across the state, 41 school districts and charter schools have entered into agreements with the Minnesota Department of Human Right to address exclusionary discipline disparities in subjective categories, like bullying and disruptive conduct.
As district leaders meet to share best practices — things like restorative practices and professional development opportunities to help teachers become more culturally and linguistically responsive — and dig into their discipline data, two districts flagged by the department have refused to enter into any such agreement: Walker-Hackensack-Akeley and the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin. Tune in for updates on how this effort progresses in 2020.
Then, on the heels of news reports out of Chicago illustrating how seclusion rooms — empty, locked time-out rooms — are being abused, expect to hear a lot more pushback from advocates and parents who say they’ve had similar experiences with these rooms in Minnesota schools, often to the detriment of children with some of the most significant emotional and behavioral disorders.
4. School choice debate
Minnesota has long been a leader on a number of choice-related education initiatives, including chartering, open-enrollment and the adoption of PSEO programs. As the Twin Cities become increasingly saturated with charter schools, however, both the Minnepolis and St. Paul districts continue to see their student enrollments decline, along with the state and federal dollars that follow each student.
This financial pinch has left some leaders in St. Paul calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, along with the expansion of any existing ones. Charter advocates are pushing back, defending charters that are successfully serving minority students through a culturally affirming learning environment.
These culturally affirming enclaves are also under scrutiny by critics who allege they have contributed to the resegregation of urban schools. In these matters, school leaders and lawmakers alike would be wise to focus on the experiences of students and families who are seeking out these alternative public school options as they tackle ongoing integration efforts.
5. Reimagining high schools
Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker has spent quite a bit of time on the road, visiting with educators and students across the state. One of her top take-aways? It’s time to reimagine the high school experience.
This shift has already been taking place in districts across the state, in various ways and on different scales. One of the most obvious transformations is the adoption of the academies model, a restructuring of course offerings that encourages students to develop a specialty and even some career experience or credentials as they move through secondary school.
Schools are also developing more hands-on partnerships with local businesses that can offer expertise and mentorship experiences for students in the trades and other hard-to-staff area.