Tom Horner positions himself at U session as the ‘reasonable man in the middle’ on education issues

Tom Horner
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Tom Horner

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.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/20/2010 - 05:13 pm.

    Horner likes to split the differences. There is no particular reason to believe that’s the right position, but it’s usually the one best calculated to win elections.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/20/2010 - 09:34 pm.

    I would expect that by evaluation we might get smarter about which approaches will work where and with whom, but I’d also guess there will always be ideas in opposition to one another in education, which look stupid if you’re using them and brilliant if you’re not.

  3. Submitted by Tom Horner on 09/21/2010 - 07:54 am.

    It’s not enough to “split the difference.” As noted in my education speech — and many other policies — we can’t simply cut the status quo or expand the status quo. For many Minnesotans the status quo isn’t working. That’s why in education and other areas I’ve offered approaches that are new to the Republican-Democratic frame on these issues, even as they build on the good thinking of Minnesotans not so invested in the political process.

  4. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 09/21/2010 - 08:55 am.

    ““putting all of the burden on the poor” in reference to Tom Emmer.

    Mr. Horner, since the poor pay few taxes and spend up to 2x what they actually earn (food stamps, welfare, housing, etc) and Tom Emmer wants to cut taxes, please explain how Tom is balancing budgets on the backs of the poor. Is he raising taxes on them like you want to with a regressive sales tax? What poor specific thing is he cutting (and not just cutting the increase)?

  5. Submitted by Lora Jones on 09/21/2010 - 09:54 am.

    Is there any actual substance or specifics anywhere here? Adding and subtracting what exactly?

    Being a Repub, it’s not surprising that Horner chimes in on the union bashing — and you have to wonder if his appreciation of the U of M extends to the state colleges and universities or was a quid pro quo for Arnie’s endorsement.

    And, the question remains, measure what? It seems to me an inordinate amount of classroom time is already spent preparing for and administering tests (being on the outside, please let me know if I’m wrong, but it seems to have increased by many orders of magnitude since the Minnesota Miracle that made us one of the most well educated workforces in the country/world). And the problem still remains — if what is being measured isn’t probative of the ability to learn/sythesize/adapt and continue learning — which appears to be the case with NCLB and it’s memorizable “basics” — the testing is meaningless as it relates to the quality of the workforce OR its potential for “lifelong learning.”

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/21/2010 - 10:10 am.

    Mohammed Ali Bin Shah says:
    “Mr. Horner, since the poor pay few taxes and spend up to 2x what they actually earn (food stamps, welfare, housing, etc) and Tom Emmer wants to cut taxes, please explain how Tom is balancing budgets on the backs of the poor.”

    Mr Bin Shah, your statement seems to consider only income taxes. But everyone also pays gas tax, liquor tax, tobacco tax, sales tax, etc. These taxes end up affecting the poor more, as a percentage of income, than they do the rich, largely because, as you note, the poor spend everything they earn – while the rich do not. So, if income tax rates are cut, the percentage of state revenue generated from other sources goes up. Because the poor pay a higher percentage of their income in the other regressive taxes, the poor’s share of state revenue has therefore gone up.

    i.e. if the state budget is a pie, and you remove (or shrink) the wedge that is income tax collected from the rich, the remaining pieces in the smaller pie each represent a larger percentage of the whole than they did in the larger pie.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/21/2010 - 10:11 am.

    Every time I try to really understand Horner’s plans I come away the conclusion that he has no plan. His plan always seems to amount to nothing more than letting someone else solve any particular problem by giving them the freedom to innovate. It’s kind of a “vote for me I’ll get out of the way and let someone else solve the problem” message. Someone somewhere will “innovate” us out of this.

    On one hand it’s the same celebration of mediocrity that Republicans have championed here in MN during the Pawlenty era- vote for me I won’t actually do very much, and I’ll fight to make sure no one else in government does very much either. On the other hand it’s the same faith-based free market thinking that’s gotten us into all these various problems in the first place. We now have several years worth of data proving that charter schools are not the solution, yet here’s Horner saying Charter schools are the solution. And so it goes.

  8. Submitted by Rich Crose on 09/21/2010 - 12:44 pm.

    As an alternative path to licensure let the “experts” substitute teach for a few years. We’ll see how many want to take a huge pay cut to stand in front of a surly class of high school students. My guess is that they’ll be running back to the private sector before the first spitball dries on their forehead.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/21/2010 - 03:00 pm.

    Principals can very clearly identify the most and least effective teachers in their building—roughly, the top 15% and bottom 15%. In contrast, principal evaluations are not correlated with achievement-based measures of effectiveness for the middle 70% or so of teachers. Similarly, the precision of most achievement-based measures of teacher effectiveness do not allow one to reliably distinguish between, for example, a teacher at the 45th percentile and a teacher at the 55th percentile. For this reason, I believe that any teacher evaluation system should focus on grouping teachers into 3 to 5 categories.

    I think a teacher evaluation system should be embedded in a broader career ladder system for teachers that ties changes in pay and job security to changes in job responsibilities. A number of districts and states have experimented with career ladder systems, but there has not been any rigorous evaluation of such systems relative to a traditional system or relative to each other. This is an area that could definitely benefit from experimentation and evaluation.

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/21/2010 - 05:09 pm.

    Mr. Shaw–
    Most of the poor are working, and while they may pay little income tax, they do pay payrolls taxes, as well as the other taxes that Mr. Simon mentions, as well as property taxes
    (either directly or as part of rent).

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/21/2010 - 09:38 pm.

    I’ll toss in the “I’m Going to be Rich Theory”.

    People are optimistic and believe it is they, not the other guy, who will get rich. So while they are in the lower classes, working their way up – or hoping so – they vote for policies that will affect them in the future.

    The 401(k), IRA, and lower trading costs also adds to the belief that they will want lower taxes. They dream their 401(k) and IRA will have lots of future monies, so they want lower income tax rates in place for when they arrive and begin withdrawals.

    Lower trading costs enticed more taxable individual investors, so they want a lower capital gains tax also. A person in the 25% tax bracket would only gain 5% for incurring risks with a 20% long-term capital gains tax. They gain 10% with a 15% capital gains tax.

  12. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/22/2010 - 09:46 am.

    For a good picture of what our conservative friends have in mind for our schools, it might be instructive to watch the movie “The Order of the Phoenix” and see the level of destruction and the resulting disruptions Delores Umbridge brings to Hogwarts School, in the name of increasing “discipline” and “improving” the school.

    I believe Delores Umbridge is very likely our conservative friends’ dream principal and under her leadership, Hogwarts comes much closer to what our conservative friends think schools should be. Of course the students’ reaction to such a school regime and the way learning suffers under it is completely outside the concerns of such conservatives.

    I fear that the assumption that school administrators (“principals”) can identify their most and least effective teachers is highly overrated. Just as is so often the REAL case in the average business – employees are evaluated, paid and promoted as often as the result of their ability to “kiss up” to and humbly bow before their supervisor as they are based on any sort of rational evaluative criteria.

    Even where “objective” criteria are set up as the standard for evaluation of employees in any situation, those objectives, more often than not, reflect the personal (and very limited) preferences, experience and personal style of those setting them up far more than the actual usefulness to the larger enterprise accomplished by employees who meet them.

    In teaching, this is a special problem because administrators are generally not knowledgeable enough in the broad range of subject matters being taught in their schools or aware enough of the broad range of effective teaching styles (preferring their own most comfortable style above all others) to easily evaluate how each of their teachers in every subject is actually functioning.

    Furthermore, it is often the case the teachers very popular with students, parents and the community (especially in smaller communities) are among the least effective in the classroom.

    All of which is just to say that, as is the case in many business environments, switching to a system where the teachers who are judged by administrators to be the best receive increases in pay and other perks while other teachers fall farther and farther behind would reduce average teacher pay to what it used to be before tenure and strong teacher organizations came into being: a contest not to be the best teacher, but to be the one best liked by the administrators.

    In far too many cases in the past this effort to be liked by their principal had far more to do with whether you ever troubled the principal by sending a disruptive student to his or her office, whether or not you buddied up to him or her outside of work, etc., than whether you were doing an adequate job teaching your students in the classroom.

    What our conservative friends seem to really be hoping for is that setting up a system wherein teachers compete for higher pay will cause the teachers to turn against each other, as workers so often do in highly competitive work environments ruled by bosses who make it clear they hold your life in their hands, thereby breaking up the teacher’s organizations, while giving administrators in every school an excuse to pay most of their teachers less since they are presumed not to be measuring up to the highest standard.

    Of course the stress in such environments causes major disruptions and reductions in productivity, not to mention that such stress would, inevitably, invade the classroom and affect unjustly the treatment of the students, creating upset and resentment in those students and reducing their performance.

    It’s likely that making schools such a negative work environment, while, at the same time lower teacher pay, would improve nothing, drive the most sensitive, creative and gifted teachers out of the profession and mean that even fewer of the “best and brightest” would consider a career in primary or secondary education than the small number who enter the field today.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/22/2010 - 10:11 am.

    #11, Richard,

    Americans are also quite confused about who the “Rich” are. Most Americans have absolutely no idea what the level of wealth disparity really is. I can’t find it now, but every year someone does a poll asking Americans what income bracket they think they’re in, typically about 20% say they’re in the top 5%. One problem with talking about taxing the rich is people making $110,000 a year think your talking about them. They have no idea that there are people in the US who make $110,000 an hour and more.

    Mohammed, the idea that wealthy pay for everyone elses government, and the poor only take and put in, is one of them more enduring myths of erstwhile champions of the wealthy. See my blog about basic tax structures:

    Scroll down to: “Are the Wealthy Over-Taxed”

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/22/2010 - 07:06 pm.

    Anyone who pays attention to economics can’t help but see the massive economic problems and imbalances underlying our commercially driven world these days. A great deal of effort, and not a little money, is currently being expended to maintain the illusion that nothing significant has changed. I suspect a great deal has changed, but we haven’t seen the results of it yet. Like the cartoon character running off of a cliff, or like a building being imploded, we exist in that moment of stasis when the props have been knocked out, but inertia is keeping gravity from taking hold just yet.

    John Templeton used to say that money flows from the spendthrifts to the frugal, or words to that effect. On the face of it, this is obvious, but if it’s so obvious, why have we had several generations of government economic planners and private financial advisers telling us that the way to get rich is to borrow and spend lots of money? Wealth is the footing on which civilization is built. Where the money is concentrated is where the real power is being built. Any illusion of stasis at the moment is a result of a balance of terror, or mutual assured economic destruction, between the debtors and the creditors. In theory, the bondholders have the wealth and the power, but in reality all nations are “too big to fail”, and any sovereign default would devastate the bondholders. So, borrowers like the US act as if they can keep borrowing forever, and their creditors act as if they will continue to get paid.

    So far, both sets of delusions appear to be successful. The economic laws of gravity appear to be suspended. Bond prices remain at record highs. Plenty of money is available to lend. Bondholders continue to make money. The problem is that there has been no point of inflection in the underlying curves; no indication that anyone intends to do anything different from what they’ve been doing in the past. Why work when you can “take equity out of your house”? Why raise taxes when you can sell bonds? The barbarians may be at the gate, but wine cellar is full, and tonight we shall drink.

    In 20 years, it will be obvious to everyone where the money and the power went, but for now, inertia is still stronger than gravity and we can still pretend nothing important has changed.

  15. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/23/2010 - 07:49 am.

    I fear you may be right, Richard about where we are economically. One of the great concerns I have is that the concept of actual value has been so obscured by the chase after maximizing monetary accumulation that none of us, especially the wealthiest among us and their financial advisers, have ANY idea what really will prove to be of value if and when the system collapses.

    All the ways of building actual worth – i.e. procuring raw materials and using creative thinking coupled with engineering and manufacturing to create new products (whether physical or intellectual) to market have been cast aside in favor of playing games with money, gambling, essentially, in the almost-completely-non-productive effort to build piles of currency (which amounts to little more than computer bits and bites at this point) which may turn out to be of little or no value if the system goes down.

    If the US doesn’t return to its former position at the forefront of creating and producing things of value to supply to each other and the rest of the world, if all our “investor class” is interested in doing is gambling rather than investing in things that truly build worth, we will rightfully be left in the dust of economic history.

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