In the third and final installment featuring Minn guv candidates at the Humphrey Institute, IP nominee Tom Horner today tried to present himself as the reasonable man in the middle on education issues, as he has on many issues.
There were no bombshell new ideas, and Horner agreed with Repub nominee Tom Emmer on several ideas that will rankle the teachers’ union. But under questioning from the Humphrey Institute’s Larry Jacobs, Horner did show an impressive familiarity with education issues from preschool to grad school.
At the level of slogans, Horner created the large frame in which he would like Minnesotans to see their 2010 guv choices. Minnesota cannot solve its problems “by putting all of the cost on the wealthy,” Horner said (an obvious reference to DFL nominee Mark Dayton’s tax-the-rich approach to closing the deficit) nor by “putting all of the burden on the poor” (an equally obvious reference to Emmer’s no-new-taxes, cut-the-way-to-balance). We need choices other than trying to “save the status quo” (a jab at Dayton) or “shrink the status quo” (a jab at Emmer), Horner said.
His slogan of the day, which applied to both the overall budget and approach to education issues, is that “it’s not a math problem” that can be solved by “adding and subtracting.” (In case you don’t get the cues, “adding” could be taken as a reference to Dayton’s pledge to increase state spending on K-12 education every year that he is governor. “Subtracting” could be taken as Emmer’s plan to freeze K-12 spending at current levels — which would result in far less than the state budget assumes would be necessary to maintain the educational status quo, and Emmer’s plan to spend less on higher education — in absolute dollars — in the next biennium.)
Horner’s overall budget plan, like Emmer’s, postpones any effort by the state to pay back the money it borrowed from school budgets through the notorious “accounting shift” maneuver in the current biennium. Dayton said he wants to pay that money back sooner but, at the moment, doesn’t have the funds to do it.
Beyond adding and subtracting
What would Horner do other than add and subtract?
His big goals, which he says reflect an “outcomes-based” approach, are to produce more Minnesotans with more education than at present. He preaches, as he has said before, a “cradle-to-grave” approach, that stretches from more attention to pre-kindergarten to adulthood. (All of the candidates want to do more in the pre-K years.)
(During the Q and A after Horner’s 30-minute talk, Jacobs noted that “cradle-to-grave” was a phrase usually used by conservatives, and not as a compliment, to refer to the up-creep of the welfare state. Horner replied that that wasn’t the way he meant it. He just means a commitment to “lifelong learning.”)
Some of Horner’s goals and priorities, which of course would require some combination of spending and reform, is to get more kids reading at grade-level by the third grade, and increasing the flexibility of principals and teachers to teach the way that works best for the particular kids in their classes, which strongly implies less control by the state — but also greater flexibility to hire and fire and reward teachers than is permitted under existing teachers’’ contracts.
Like Emmer, Horner endorses greater freedom of schools to bring in experts in various fields who haven’t come up through conventional teacher training (often referred to as “alternative path to licensure,” which is something else that makes the union nervous).
Horner referred to “outdated seniority rules” that protect teachers from being reassigned. “We need Education Minnesota to either work with us as partners” in that direction, “or we will have to work around them,” Horner said.
After the presentation, I asked Horner to explain what it meant to work around the union rules.
“Do we have to move from a closed shop to an open shop?” Horner mused. It would be best to persuade the union to be more flexible, but if not, school districts and the state need to “find ways to get more leverage with unions … more balance to the negotiating process.”
His example was to perhaps change state law, which strengthens the bargaining position of teacher unions by imposing a financial penalty on districts that do not settle a contract by a fixed deadline.
Higher Ed funding flat
A “world-class” University of Minnesota must be at the center of the new system, Horner said (aware of course that he was speaking at the U of M). Unlike Emmer’s approach, Horner’s goal is to hold higher education funding level from the current biennium to the next one.
Horner spoke warmly about the potential of charter schools, especially in seeking ways to close the gap in test scores and graduation rates among various ethnic groups. He acknowledged the need for financial controls and quality controls on charter schools, but it sounds like he would prefer to err on the side of letting them innovate.
Education reform is part and parcel of dealing with Minnesota’s economic and job growth problems, Horner said, although he declined Jacobs’ invitation to estimate how many private sector jobs could be creating by education changes. He said he wouldn’t mind submitting his ideas to the state Department of Economic Development, who might score them along those lines.
Horner’s best shot at getting a laugh and/or a warm personal moment was to take advantage of the setting — the Humphrey Institute. Horner first came to politics as a campaign aide to Dave Durenberger in Durenberger’s successful 1978 election to fill out the last months of the term of the late Hubert Humphrey, who died earlier that year. Humphrey’s widow, Muriel, had been appointed to serve as caretaker senator until the election (in which she chose not seek a full-term and the DFL nominee, Bob Short, was defeated by Durenberger. Anyway, when Horner accompanied Durenberger to Washington on the day after the election to begin working on the transition, the first Washingtonian he met on that trip was a young woman who had worked for both Humphreys in the Senate office. That woman, Libby Shelton, became Libby Horner in 1980, so, said Horner, “Libby and I started practicing bipartisanship before bipartisanship was cool.”
By the way, both the MNGOP and the DFL put out press releases attacking Horner today, each suggesting that he was a liberal or a right winger in disguise (you can guess which party made which accusation. The DFL took off specifically from his Humphrey talk. MinnPost’s Jay Weiner describes both press releases here.