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With a few exceptions, Minnesota governor’s race shows stark differences on education

Teacher pay, the achievement gap and school safety are among issues sharply dividing Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Tim Walz.

Both the DFL and Republican nominees for governor have called for simplifying the school funding formula.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson, whose campaigns for governor of Minnesota have so far been marked by how much they disagree, actually agree on a few things where Minnesota education is concerned.

Both the DFL and Republican nominees for governor have called for simplifying the school funding formula, and both want to provide more technical and vocational options for high school graduates who don’t want to pursue four-year college degrees.

Walz’s quip is that the formula should be such that “you don’t need a doctorate to understand how we fund our children’s education.

“It makes it difficult not only for our school officials, it makes it difficult for our parents, for our taxpayers to understand exactly what we pay for how it works,” Walz said during an August press conference unveiling his education positions.

And Johnson uses his son Rolf to illustrate what he calls an attitude issue about education and achievement. Rolf is in high school and making the decision about what to do next — four-year college or something else — Johnson said at a Mankato forum earlier in the campaign.

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“But there are people in our community, if he chooses something else, they are going to feel sorry for me … which makes me so sad because we should be so proud of these kids who make the right choice for them and help fill the need in our state right now for skilled workers.”

But beyond these issues, the Republican Johnson and the DFL-nominee Walz take vastly different approaches to education in the state. Johnson said he wants to change the mindset in St. Paul that more money is the answer to problems in schools and instead look to ways to alter the status quo. Walz said he wants to make sure school funding keeps up with inflation and that levy and capital construction funds are fair. The 20-year teacher also talks about making sure students have the food and shelter and health care that will put them in a position to learn.

Both candidates have children in public schools, Walz in Mankato and Johnson in Wayzata.

Johnson on teacher pay

Johnson’s agenda is more likely to rankle the education community with his support for linking teacher pay and promotion with performance appraisals. He also has said he would look at vouchers to let parents choose private options and wants a “parent trigger” that could be pulled to force changes in low-performing schools.

Johnson, a former state legislator and current Hennepin County commissioner, includes in his platform a “first fifty days” action plan with a separate section on education. He pledges to appoint a school finance commission to “throw every state mandate and regulation in place today out the window” and decide on a dollars-per-student amount with some additional money for schools with unique needs.

Jeff Johnson
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan
Jeff Johnson pledges to appoint a school finance commission to “throw every state mandate and regulation in place today out the window.”
Johnson said that a different pay and promotion system would encourage new teachers to enter a profession “where tenure is forgone in exchange for annual performance reviews with no limitation placed on how big a raise they can get or how quickly they can blow past the highest paid teachers in the current current, antiquated steps and lanes system.”

Johnson also endorses school choice programs in addition to charter schools, including vouchers and tax credits that could be used to pay private school tuition and a “parent trigger” that would allow a majority of parents in a school to force significant changes, including replacing administrators and shifting to a charter school model.

And Johnson wants to reform the state board of teaching to require it to consider teachers trained in other states and those with backgrounds outside the education system.

Walz on school funding

Walz’s education plan will likely gain support in the state schools community, not a shock given that he is a 20-year public school teacher with the enthusiastic support of Education Minnesota. Walz, a member of Congress from Mankato since 2007, starts with school funding, making the case for what he terms “an honest conversation” about what it costs to educate students for a “global economy.”

“We oftentimes ask the wrong question; we ask what does it cost? The question is what does it cost not to.” Walz said. He proposed starting with the education outcomes that are desired and working back from there to arrive at the cost. He said the Legislature should include inflationary increases in each year’s budget. Walz also wants changes in levy assistance programs for property-poor districts that cannot get as much from property taxes as wealthier districts.

On that point, Walz frequently talks about funding adequacy not being dependent on ZIP code. In rural districts, “we have a bond referendum to repair a leaky roof versus domed stadiums with turf fields (in the suburbs).” Walz also calls for reductions in average class sizes so as to “make sure every students gets the attention and has the relationships that they need to be a successful learner.” But when pressed Walz isn’t specific as to what is his target for a student-teacher ratio.

Tim Walz
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Tim Walz's education plan emphasizes the connection between education and social programs.
“It depends on how much support staff is there, it depends on how much we’ve been able to use full-service community schools,” Walz said.

Walz education plan also emphasizes the connection between education and social programs.

“Kids don’t come in pieces,” Walz said. “If a child comes to school hungry, they’re not going to learn. If a child doesn’t see a dentist, they’re not going to learn. A child that comes out of a home with trauma, they’re not going to learn. Those things need to be there.”

Stark differences on achievement gap

At the MPR state fair debate, the candidates were asked about their ideas for dealing with an achievement gap between white students and students of color. Again, the question revealed stark differences.

“We have had one of the worst racial achievement gaps in the country for the last 50 years and we have been wringing our hands about it and saying it’s a horrible thing and spending a lot of money on it and nothing is changing,” Johnson said. “It’s clearly not just spending more money because we’ve been doing that and it’s not working.”

Johnson returned to his school reform proposals by saying parents of students of color need to have more power to demand improvements or take their students to other schools.

Walz said during his education press conference that “we know that the opportunity gap among communities of color shrinks when we have more diversity in our curriculum. We need to be make sure that we’re culturally competent with teachers that stand in front of these students. We need to make sure they see teachers who look and sound and understand them at a very early age.”

And during the state fair debate, Walz said that health and human services budgets that Johnson has said need to be trimmed will “exacerbate the gap rather than closing it.”

The debate over education between Walz and Johnson also feeds into more central campaign themes. Walz speaks about investments and that “you get what you pay for,” while Johnson criticizes him for overpromising and committing the state to spending that will require tax hikes.

“You are the greatest feel-good candidate I have ever seen,” Johnson said of Walz during the MPR debate at the state fair. “You’re good at it.”

Walz, in turn, pounces with allegations that the budget cuts that would result from Johnson’s proposed budget and tax reductions would harm education, health care and social services. While Walz and DFLers had been expecting to use recession-era budget cuts made by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, they have now pivoted to tying them to Johnson because he voted for those budgets while in the state House.

“I experienced those cuts and those decisions firsthand. I understand what it did and how it damaged our education system,” Walz said during a press conference on his education plan in August. “And we are quite honestly still trying to recover from those decisions.”

School safety

The two candidates differ on how to make students and staff safer from school shootings and other attacks, differences that spill over into their disagreements on guns and gun control. Walz has seen his grade from the NRA fall from an A to an F as he has supported measures such as bans of bump stocks, background checks before gun sales and red flag warnings for dangerous people that would allow courts to remove guns from their possession.

Walz said his change of mind is the result of changes in society and the hardening of the stance of the NRA. Johnson accuses him of changing his position as he moved from a less-liberal 1st Congressional District to a more-liberal statewide DFL base.

Johnson said he supports allowing districts to arm teachers who are qualified to handle weapons and wants more money to upgrade safety and security. But he said he doesn’t support additional gun control measures and said the increase in school violence is due to other factors.

“I believe we have a cultural issue that we are afraid to talk about in this country,” Johnson said at the state fair. Sometime in the 1990s, “something happened to at least a few of the young men and boys in our society and now (school violence) is becoming more and more prevalent.” He cites family breakdown, mental health issues, pop culture and school discipline changes as potential reasons and said society needs to have these difficult conversations.

“We never talk about those things because the answer is always, let’s ban bump stocks, maybe that will prevent the next school shooting and it won’t,” Johnson said.

Reducing access to guns is needed, Walz said, and he said he isn’t willing to stop trying to solve the problem just because some, like Johnson, say it won’t work.

“I don’t disagree that there’s a whole spectrum of issues, but to leave the gun piece out is leaving out a key component,” Walz said. And he rejected calls to arm teachers.

“I was both a soldier and a teacher, and hardening the perimeter is something I did in the military,” said Walz, a 24-year member of the National Guard. “It isn’t something I want to do in schools. As a parent and teacher, arming teachers is not the right way to go.”