Education remains the elephant in the room

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2008 - 8:03 AM

2009 plans are evolving, but addressing inequities still should be on the state agenda.

You know that line about "the best-laid plans"? It came to mind earlier this month as I sat in on a west-metro League of Women Voters briefing on big plans to tidy up the mess that's been made of Minnesota's school-funding system.

A "New Minnesota Miracle." That idea was supposed to be the big issue in state House races this summer and fall. It was supposed to be top-tier policy stuff at the 2009 Legislature. The studies have been done; the proposal drafted; the stakeholders' coalition built, and the hearings held around the state.

And the state senator who led the briefing, Minnetonka DFLer Terri Bonoff -- well, according to her plan last winter, she wasn't even going to be in the Legislature in 2009. She aimed to be off to Congress as the newly elected successor to Third District Rep. Jim Ramstad.

Plans go awry. Bonoff is still in the state Senate. The education issue is being eclipsed by economic distress and -- temporarily, let us pray -- by the Coleman-Franken recount.

Any thought DFLers had that they could work their will on education funding and disregard the views of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended when the Dems came up three votes shy of a veto-proof House majority.

But this much will not change, no matter the size of the next deficit or whom Minnesota sends to Washington: This state has an education problem.

For nearly two decades, state K-12 funding has lagged well behind inflation, even as federal and state governments have ordered schools to do more. Schools turned to local property taxpayers to keep up.

The result is the return of the problem the original 1971 Minnesota Miracle was supposed to fix. An educational opportunity gap has opened between property-rich and property-poor districts, and it's growing.

But that's just one of the gaps plaguing Minnesota education, and it may not be the most important one. Too many children of color are on the wrong side of an achievement gap and a college-attainment gap. Both of those gaps are way too wide in a state where nearly all the growth in the next decade will be in the nonwhite population.

If Pawlenty and the Legislature repair the next budget deficit in the same way they did the last big one, in 2003, they will make matters worse.

Cuts alone won't cut it this time. Cuts in education will deplete the value of Minnesota's best economic asset, its well-educated workforce. Creative, cost-saving redesign of education and other public services -- getting more good for the buck -- needs to be part of this deficit response.

That brings me to Bonoff. A daughter of the family that owned the women's clothier Jackson Graves, she's a former business executive who moved into public life via advocacy for her four children's schools.

Bonoff gets both education and business. She knows both are hurting right now -- and that squeezing one too hard will only hurt the other down the road. So while she put her name last year on the New Minnesota Miracle bill to redesign pre-K-12 funding, Bonoff told the League of Women Voters audience that she has become uncomfortable with formula change as the 2009 session's sole education priority.

She explained: There's much to like about the simple, logical K-12 funding design that's been developed so painstakingly. It would do much to reduce inequities between districts.

But it wouldn't do enough to get at-risk children ready for school or into college, she said. Neither would it target some of the things that research says make a difference -- teacher quality, for example, or length of the school day and year.

There's also not enough incentive for cost-saving reorganization -- and that has to be a 2009 priority. For example, she said, school districts ought to band together to seek efficiencies in purchasing, payroll and transportation. That "shared services" approach has been tried in Pennsylvania with the help of consultants Deloitte Touche and is producing considerable savings.

Deloitte has been engaged to help develop a similar plan here. Bonoff believes as much as $1 billion a year might eventually be saved by Minnesota schools and local governments through joint ventures.

"It's time to reengineer all of our structures," she said. "This is a different day." Plans change. And that's not all bad.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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