Legislators offer frank, surprising views on education policies / Joe Nathan’s Column

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, spoke at a panel discussion on education topics June 2. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Joe Nathan

Three Minnesota state legislators deeply involved in education issues shared frank, sometimes surprising, views in a panel discussion on June 2. Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders had not made final decisions when panelists spoke or when this column was written. But panelists provided important insights on the 2015 legislative session, along with good ideas about what should happen next.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, spoke on a panel convened by former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser and others working with him to help reduce Minnesota’s achievement gap. Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, planned to participate, but called just before the panel started to say she was involved in negotiations with the governor.

The two DFL senators had frank comments about Dayton’s proposed universal program to serve all 4-year-olds that helped explain why the DFL-controlled Senate did not adopt it. Clausen noted that to carry out the program just in District 196 (Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools) would have required construction of 100 new classrooms.

“Funding for that construction was not included in the proposal,” he explained. While Clausen supports expanding early-childhood programs, he felt the governor’s proposal “needed more work,” he said.

Torres Ray described herself as “incredibly disappointed” about the division that developed about early childhood programs during the legislative session. She thought the split that developed between advocates for targeted and universal programs for 4-year-olds was “extremely unfortunate” because “there are lots of good things about both the targeted and scholarship approaches.”

However, one of her top priorities is to retain and help expand access to neighborhood and community early childhood programs that target low-income families.

Erickson explained she and her Republican colleagues “strongly believe in a mixed delivery system” that includes programs offered by school districts, community groups and individuals. She also believes “addressing the needs of students from low-income families is critical. Targeting is what we need to think about.”

The governor’s universal program would have made preschool programs run by school districts available at no cost to all Minnesota 4-year-olds. The governor also proposed expanding Head Start and continuing scholarships, allowing low-income families access to programs, whether offered in districts or elsewhere. More information about the governor’s proposal can be found here: http://bit.ly/1K9fPMv.

Responding to a question from panel moderator Lori Sturdevant from the Star Tribune, the three legislators strongly recommended that a comprehensive, unbiased study be done of Minnesota’s array of early childhood and “readiness” programs between now and the 2016 legislative session.

While most of the panel’s time was spent on early childhood, they also commented on other issues.

Two panelists disagreed about the importance of change. Thirty-six-year teacher Erickson noted that teachers are frustrated by constant changes that legislators enact.

“It’s time for us to be quiet for a while,” she suggested.

Torres Ray pointed out that too many students currently are failing: “I am not ready to leave the system alone!”

The panelists agreed that:

–Improving the preparation of teachers and administrators is important.

–Expanding access to courses that permit high school students to earn college credit is a priority. Clausen explained this is “near and dear to my heart.” His colleagues agreed.

–They are very frustrated that final decisions in education are being made in private, involving only the governor and House Speaker Kurt Daudt.

I hope at least two things happen that panelists proposed. First, we need a careful, unbiased study about the impact of Minnesota’s early childhood programs. We also need to find a way for final decisions to be made in public.

The Achievement Gap Committee that hosted this panel convenes free periodic meetings and posts videos of its panel discussions on its website, found here:http://bit.ly/1Ic9jlZ.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.