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Minnesotans give higher ratings to schools now than they did 40 years ago

Two-thirds of Minnesotans today describe their schools as good, compared to 45 percent in 1974. The number rating them as excellent has risen from 10 percent to 13 percent.

Quality of public schools poll question
Morris Leatherman Company

Ah, that crafty Mark Dayton and his all-day-K. The governor, who you might have heard is campaigning for a second term, just might turn out to have a Machiavellian bone or two after all.     

Turns out we are much more likely to rate our schools as good or excellent now than 40 years ago, when the Minnesota Miracle put the state’s education system in the national spotlight.

Two-thirds of Minnesotans today describe their schools as good, compared to 45 percent in 1974. Over the same time period, the number rating them as excellent has risen from 10 percent to 13 percent.

The findings are part of a public opinion poll [PDF] presented Friday to the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD) by the Morris Leatherman Co. The survey was conducted by Bill Morris, whose Decision Resources became part of the new public opinion research firm last year.

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A slim majority of Minnesotans — 53 percent — feel the state is headed in the right direction, according to the poll. Meanwhile 63 percent say their household is better off this year.

Though Minnesota has gotten much redder since the 1974, those contacted by pollsters still skew DFL. Gov. Mark Dayton enjoys a 6-point lead over GOP challenger Jeff Johnson, who is supported by 40 percent of voters. The exact same split is reported for state House of Representatives races. Sen. Al Franken has the support of 49 percent of those contacted, versus Mike McFadden’s 43 percent.

AMSD asked Morris to dig into the archives for the historic context because it is the group’s 40th anniversary, said Executive Director Scott Croonquist. The finding that confidence in the quality of school is higher now than in public education’s supposed heyday surprised AMSD members, he said.

State seen as an exception

Morris said residents the pollsters talked to generally feel that schools are improving and that Minnesota is an exception to the headlines suggesting U.S. students are losing their competitive edge to other countries.

“There have been a lot of knocks on public education for spending, but opinions about quality have not gone down,” said Morris. “Education has always been a core value of residents of this state. The dedication to public education is very strong.”

Three-fourths of respondents would support a high-school graduation test, while 58 percent would increase the sales tax to support K-2 literacy efforts. (High-school exit tests were repealed by the 2014 Legislature.)

Just over half would support the automatic renewal of school levies. And 55 percent oppose raising the legal dropout age to 17. While 53 percent favor a dedicated education tax on fracking, 32 percent oppose the practice altogether.

Five key reasons cited

Minnesotans cite five key reasons why they feel the state’s schools are good or excellent, according to Morris, with the range of choices atop the list. Other reasons people were likely to perceive their schools as high quality: the percentage of graduates going on to higher ed; internships and other opportunities to learn outside the classroom; quality teachers; and strong offerings for both exceptional and at-risk students.

Several of the findings reinforced an opinion Morris has been venturing for years: That Education Minnesota made a mistake in electing to depict itself as more of a labor union than a professional organization.

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“So people look at policies put forward as the start of labor demands,” he said. “I was worried about this five or six years ago.”

Places where Morris sees this reflected: 68 percent of those polled would prefer teachers work on long-term contracts rather than receiving tenure. Almost half would restrict teacher collective bargaining and nearly two-thirds would eliminate quality-blind teacher layoffs.

One-fifth of Minnesotans would decrease charter school opportunities while 49 percent would increase them; 28 percent favor “about the same.” Two-thirds favor a “parent-trigger” law — never mind that the concept has gotten precious little public discussion here.

The finding that most surprised Morris: 67 percent of respondents favor requiring schools to report undocumented immigrants.