First of two editorials on education issues and the 2011 Legislature.
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It's a bumper-crop year for E-12 education ideas at the Minnesota Legislature.
A mix of both welcome and ill-advised proposals to reform education have flown fast and furiously this session -- many representing politically controversial shifts away from current policies.
And because Republicans now control both the House and Senate for the first time in decades, a number of concepts that never made it out of committee in years past are now part of E-12 bills that are headed to conference comittee and eventually to Gov. Mark Dayton's signature or veto.
The governor and legislators eventually will decide how to allocate $13 billion to $14 billion for public education over the next two years, roughly equal to what is being spent now.
With a $5 billion budget deficit, it's not likely that many new dollars will go to schools. Rather, current funding will be reallocated.
As politicians craft the budget, their decisionmaking should be driven by what's best for students -- not by what might play best with partisan supporters.
Though Minnesota schools do an effective job educating many students, legislators must focus on narrowing the large and persistent achievement gap between white students and too many kids of color.
Accomplishing that goal will take improving some current polices, killing those that don't work and supporting proven reforms.
Among the current spending items that should be maintained but need improvement are compensatory and integration aid -- the additional per-pupil funding amounts districts receive for desegregation efforts and for lower-income students.
Current legislation would eliminate or divert those funds.
The programs deserve continued support because students with disadvantages such as language barriers and poverty require more resources. But the state must also require better assessments of how the funds are spent and must demand results.
A troubling legislative auditor's report found that the integration aid program lacked focus and accountability. Taxpayers need to know that those aid dollars and programs really make a difference.
With many public school districts struggling to find budget fixes, both the Senate and House call for some form of vouchers for private-school tuition. One would give direct payments to lower-income families, and another would provide families with tax credits.
Both are wrongheaded.
Studies of voucher programs around the country have found mixed results, and traditional public schools educate the majority of Minnesota students today. In a time of tight resources, the focus should be on changing or closing ineffective public schools -- not chasing students away.
With Dayton likely to veto both the integration aid cuts and voucher legislation, it's time for the governor and lawmakers to focus on policy and budget provisions they can agree upon.
GOP leaders and the governor can find common ground in targeting the state's wide achievement gap. Dayton recommends giving innovation awards to schools that show progress, and he would create a new system that would give schools an incentive to share effective innovations with other schools.
The House bill also calls for an innovation fund, but it differs with the administration on funding sources. This is an area for compromise.
It would be a major accomplishment to target state dollars for proven, research-driven programs that work and to require that those strategies be used by other schools.
Another important reform would require faster intervention at schools that chronically miss the mark. While there are many reasons why some schools have more challenges, they should not be allowed to continue failing students year after year.
There should be bipartisan agreement that the state needs new strategies to deal with failing schools.
With the clock running on the 2011 legislative session, Dayton and GOP leaders have an opportunity to make progress on key education reforms and to improve existing programs.
Given this region's huge achievement gaps not only in education, but also in health, income and employment, effective innovation in education is critical.
The state's growing population of students of color represents the workers, leaders and taxpayers of tomorrow. Failing them is not an option.
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Coming Monday: Several major changes in the various proposed K-12 bills are not directed at students, but at those who teach them. Monday's editorial will address legislation that would eliminate traditional teacher tenure, ban teacher strikes, limit collective bargaining and develop a statewide teacher evaluation system.