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Dayton’s education funding fight is a lot like one fought by Arne Carlson, with one big difference

In 1997, Arne Carlson vetoed an education bill because it didn’t include tax credits, a top priority for the governor.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson

A governor designates a significant change in education policy as his priority of his second term in office. 

His passion for the issue comes from personal experience in the public school system.

He stakes his political reputation on passing the change because he has nothing to lose. He will not be running for office again.

He promises that if the legislature fails to include his marquee issue in the K-12 education bill, the bill will be vetoed.

Over the last days and weeks, Gov. Mark Dayton has taken all of these steps as part of his efforts to get the Legislature to pass funding for pre-K education for 4-year-olds.

But he is not the first governor to go down that road. Gov. Arne Carlson did all of the above in 1997 to win his battle over offering tax credits for education expenses, including private school tuition, a modification of a school voucher proposal that was dead on arrival when he proposed it in 1996.   

Carlson ended up vetoing the Legislature’s initial education funding bill, and later described the month following the veto as “one of the most difficult months of my life.” 

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That month was equally difficult — or at least challenging — for his staff, who were tasked with convincing the legislature to include tax credits in the bill it would take up in a special session. (By then I was no longer part of the Carlson’s staff.) 

“This was the governor’s main thing,” said Chas Anderson, Carlson’s outreach director for the tax credit issue. Anderson, like other staffers, had heard the Carlson stories, how his passion for choices in education started after an impoverished youth in New York and a private school experience that he said changed his life.

Former Dayton staffer and campaign manager Katherine Tinucci echoes those sentiments in her description of Dayton and his experience as a public school teacher in New York. “It was a short career but incredibly informative,” she said. “Working with students, he carries that experience with him.” 

Tinucci has no doubt that Dayton will live up to his veto promise. “He’s going to lay it all out the table and really fight for what he wants to get done,” she said.

Yet there’s one big difference between the fight 18 years ago and now. Dayton hasn’t built the base of support for his issue that Carlson produced in 1997. The key to Carlson’s ultimate success was the work of two well-organized coalitions: one comprised of business groups, the other an umbrella group called Minnesotans for School Choice, comprised of religious-affiliated organizations. 

Anderson worked with those coalitions on making sure their concerns reached the right legislators. “I remember, [chief of staff] Bernie Omann would ask every day, ‘how are the calls going into so-and-so’s office.’”

The calls were coordinated with rallies at the capitol and Carlson’s speeches before churches and business audiences.

The efforts paid off. Polls showed support for Carlson’s proposal, and the legislature, during a special session, passed the law, though he final bill did not include the tax credits for private or parochial schooling.

At a news conference Sunday, Dayton promised the public support for funding pre-K schooling will emerge when the public understands the Republican position, “that four-year olds have to pay the price for their political posturing… their precious tax cuts.”

Dayton declined to indict the DFL-controlled Senate in his remarks but, like Carlson in 1997, he faces opposition to his “number one priority” in both legislative bodies. His battle for pre-K education will take place on two fronts.

But Dayton, like Carlson, seems ready — even eager — for a special session fight. “Investing in education every year he was governor,” Tinucci said. “This is why he wanted to do it.”

It appears that when it comes to a drawing a line in the sand, nothing will bring a governor to the beach like education policy.