It’s hard to find a legislator who won’t look you in the eye and say that they are all for fixing our education system. Mountains of data suggest that it’s in everyone’s interest to do something. Our aging work force needs replenishing while student populations are declining, and the costs we pay for failing individuals in our communities are growing exponentially, with state prison being the most expensive end result of all.
Perhaps the most distressing trend is the achievement gap, with data showing that children of color or in poverty are falling well behind their white, well-off counterparts. Parents frustrated by the pace of education reform are choosing to put their children in private schools, thus leaving public classrooms with even higher concentrations of children with bigger educational needs.
Despite this troubling outlook, here’s what happened at the state legislature this year:
- The funding bill for K-12 education: Failed to pass.
- Proposals to create alternative licensure routes for teachers: Failed to pass, and in part the reason why Minnesota was eliminated for federal Race to the Top funding.
- Charter school reforms: Failed to pass.
- State school aid payments: Postponed until next biennium, creating borrowing costs for many school districts to meet cash flow pressures.
Bottom line: no reform and little change even as the pace of decline in our education system appears to be accelerating.
Unfortunately for our kids, there is no “oil spill” equivalent to draw our attention, our anger and demand for change in our schools. The degradation to our education system has been and continues to be incremental. With no looming precipice over which we will fall, there is no overriding urgency to fix the problems. The benefits of reform, even with the uncertainties inevitably associated with it, must overcome our comfort with the status quo.
One modest piece of legislation signed with little fanfare was the omnibus early childhood education bill. This bill did a number of small but significant things to bring about state leadership and accountability measures in our early childhood education system, including:
- Establishing a task force, funded with private dollars but administered under the Department of Education, to develop recommendations for the next governor and legislature for consolidating the array of early childhood programs now inefficiently dispersed across at least three state agencies;
- Requiring the State’s Early Childhood Advisory Council to develop recommendations on benchmarking state progress.
- Requiring the State’s Early Childhood Advisory Council to develop recommendations for expanding screenings and assessments;
- Supporting the continuation and expansion of childcare provider quality ratings now piloted in several communities.
These are admittedly small steps, but they may arm the next governor and legislature with support for significant change and provide parents with earlier and better information about their kids and the programs available to them.
Finally, we will each have the opportunity during this election season, when all state legislators and statewide officers will be on the ballot, to demand that they do more to ensure that Minnesota be a high-achieving education state. Our kids, our economy and our future depend upon it. – Nancy Hylden
Nancy Hylden is an associate at Faegre & Benson. She advocates for education reform efforts at the state capitol on behalf of The Minneapolis Foundation.