The four gubernatorial candidates who participated in a forum this morning on the future of education in Minnesota have clearly spent some time considering what it will be like to exist between a rock and a hard place.
Whoever the next governor is, he or she will inherit a state budget deficit of at least $6 billion, a backlog of “deferred” state aid payments to schools, a persistent academic achievement gap and a public education system that has been cut to the bone.
DFLers Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza and Independence Party candidates Tom Horner and Rob Hahn sketched out their proposed solutions before a standing-room-only crowd of elected officials and education policymakers packed into the hall at the Open Book facility in Minneapolis. The forum was convened by several education advocacy groups.
The discussion was robust, the ideas diverse, and the two major party endorsed candidates were nowhere to be found.
Given the heavily DFL audience — and the laughter that accompanied several well-aimed jokes from the debaters on the dais — Republican Tom Emmer probably didn’t lose any votes by skipping the event.
The absence of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who has been endorsed by Education Minnesota, was more surprising. When asked by MinnPost, Dane Smith, president of Growth and Justice, the think tank that organized the event, said Kelliher had a scheduling conflict.
This morning’s debaters were asked about several proposed reforms that ended in stalemate during the recently concluded legislative session.
The candidate in attendance with the lowest profile was also the most conservative. Rob Hahn said he was wary of sinking more money into an education system that’s lacking in efficiency and accountability. He supports vouchers for people in economic need, would abolish teacher tenure and raise revenue by legalizing riverboat gambling and imposing new taxes on “the uber-rich.”
“We do not need to add more money to what has become a trough,” said Hahn.
The distinctions between the other three were much finer.
All opposed further privatization in education, blamed Gov. Tim Pawlenty for spiraling tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities and agreed that the first place they’d ramp up spending was on early childhood education.
“Our first dollar needs to go there,” said Horner.
Where will that dollar come from?
Dayton, noting that he scoured the current budget and identified only $650 million in potential cuts, would raise taxes on wealthy Minnesotans. “Education has been the key to our past prosperity, and it’s the key to our future prosperity,” he said. “Are we going to put our money where we say our values are?”
Entenza would start start by reducing the deficit and jump-starting the economy by investing in clean energy. After that, he’d use a combination of new taxes, cuts and deferrals. “We need a balanced approach,” he said. “I don’t believe we can cut our way out, I don’t believe we can tax our way out.”
Horner’s reply garnered the morning’s biggest laugh when describing his plan to generate ideas by inviting as many stakeholders as possible to the table, gesturing at and name-checking his opponents as possible sources of good ideas.
He broke into a broad grin and gestured into the air: “If it’s a good idea from Tom Emmer, we’re going to say, ‘What?’ and then we’re going to invite Tom Emmer to the table.”
All three were in favor of beefing up instruction for English-language learners, although each had a slightly different take. Dayton would make it easier for teachers to give individualized attention by finding the money to reduce class sizes. Both Entenza and Horner said they would recruit a more diverse teacher corps; Entenza would also try to restore foreign-language instruction for all English-speaking students.
Dayton decried districts’ need to pass levies, once reserved for funding capital improvements and other one-time expenses — to close operating deficits. Horner and Entenza voiced concern about the “two-tier” system created by reliance on levies.
“A few districts with wealthy property tax bases are able to buy their way out,” said Entenza.
Horner dodged a question from moderator Megan Boldt, an education reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on the high-stakes tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, saying he was most interested in outcomes. Dayton and Entenza were categorical, however: The current tests must be scrapped and replaced by so-called growth-model assessments, which measure how much learning a child does in a year.
Horner also sidestepped a question about his position on eliminating teacher tenure, one of the most contentious of the reforms on the recent legislative agenda. “Real redesign starts with examining outcomes and concentrating on the reforms that get us there,” he said.
Entenza called for keeping tenure but finding better ways to evaluate teachers and principals. Dayton would keep tenure, too, but returned to the topic of overcrowded classrooms where, he said, no teacher is wholly effective.
All three agreed on one thing: Education can’t be revitalized in a vacuum. The state’s economy has to be priority No.1, because only jobs for parents will lift students out of poverty, and an educated populace is vital to attracting those jobs.
Complete video coverage of the forum is available at The UpTake.
Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.