With a stirring call to make Minnesota a “state of educational excellence,” Gov. Mark Dayton made clear as he was inaugurated Monday that better public education will be his central aim in his second and final term.
No other item on state government’s agenda will have greater claim on his attention, the DFL governor said. “I will dedicate the next four years to regaining our state’s position as a national and global leader in educational excellence,” he vowed, to the applause of several hundred supportive onlookers at St. Paul’s Landmark Center.
It’s a worthy emphasis. Minnesota stands on the brink of a projected shortage in skilled workers, and its track record is weak in educating the fastest-growing segments of the young population — those from low-income and minority families. The Star Tribune Editorial Board heard that same lament Monday while meeting with representatives of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
Dayton employed only a little hyperbole when he said that generating more and better-skilled workers has become a matter of economic survival for Minnesota. But the governor merely hinted at what his plan will be for enlarging and upgrading the state’s skilled workforce. The hints were positive, as far as they went.
He favors “more time in studies,” including the option of year-round instruction. He wants more “developmental activities,” including after-school tutoring and mentoring. He favors expansion of “advanced high school” to give more teenagers an academic and financial jump on college. He indicated a desire to improve educational opportunity for all, avoiding the increasingly resented term “achievement gap” and its implication that only one segment of learners needs to improve.
Yet a major expansion of publicly funded preschool programs, often mentioned by Dayton during his 2014 re-election campaign, went unmentioned Monday.
So did ideas for upgrading teacher performance and accountability favored by the new House Republican majority, as well as tenure reforms supported by this newspaper that would protect promising young teachers.
Dayton indicated that he will call for more education spending — he prefers the term “investing” for its connotation of future rewards — without specifying an amount. Those details will come in the budget he’s due to present on Jan. 27 to the Legislature, which convenes Tuesday. He may have surprised some Minnesotans with word that their state has slipped to 24th among the 50 states in per-pupil K-12 spending — a position that ill befits a “Brainpower State.”
He did well to insist that new funding should not go for “what is being done now.” And, to his credit, he stopped short of calling for an increase in state income or sales taxes to pay for his education agenda. That implies his intention to claim a sizable portion of the forecasted $1 billion surplus in the state’s 2016-17 general fund for educational betterment and to divert some educational funding streams for new purposes.
Both of those intentions will run into resistance. Many House Republicans have said they want to use uncommitted general fund dollars for improvements in highways and bridges, particularly in Greater Minnesota. And Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, and other elements in the K-12 establishment are bound to resist tapping funds that currently flow to school districts.
Dayton had been expected to discuss the state’s transportation needs in his inaugural message. Instead, he said he would say more about transportation in coming days. That message may come as soon as Wednesday, at the annual legislative session kickoff dinner hosted by the Minnesota Chamber, a potent opponent of raising taxes for transportation purposes.
The governor may have been thinking of the chamber, a frequent critic of Minnesota’s business climate, when he called on Minnesotans to speak with pride about their state’s strengths. “We’re often so focused on what we think is wrong, we forget everything that is right,” he chided. More vocal home-state pride is in order, not for the sake of “collective self-esteem,” but because it can help woo talent and investment from around the world.
He also issued a timely call for Minnesotans to recognize that they are part of a shared enterprise: “We are all one Minnesota. What binds us together is much more important than what pulls us apart. … Let’s cheer each other’s successes, not resent them.”
Those are important words at the start of a legislative session that features resurgent political clout in Greater Minnesota and the absence of any Twin Cities representation in the House majority caucus. It’s a lawmaking environment in which ideas for benefiting one region at another’s expense seem bound to surface.
If and when they do, someone in the governor’s office who understands the interdependence of Minnesota’s geographic regions should stand ready to safeguard the interests of the whole state.