I was just back from last week's health care reform briefing, at which it was plausibly asserted that a big bureaucratic system can spend less and still produce better results, when Curt Johnson paid a surprise visit to my Capitol warren.
Johnson hasn't been a regular in the basement since he served Gov. Arne Carlson as chief of staff and Metropolitan Council chairman in the 1990s. He'd returned to his old haunt, he said, to tell me about how a big bureaucratic system can be redesigned to spend no more than it does now and still produce better results.
"Thanks, Curt," I said, "but I was just at the health care news conference."
"I'm not talking about health care," he said. "I'm talking about K-12 education."
Ah, the sacred bovine. At a 40 percent share, K-12 education is the biggest item in the state budget. It's standing (and grazing, no doubt) smack in the middle of this session's partisan battlefield.
Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty tossed another $27 million on the table in his bid to boost K-12 spending about 2 percent in 2010-11, even in the face of a steep, recession-driven revenue slide. He's willing to gamble with the state's credit rating and borrow against future state revenues to do it. He said he's also willing to up his K-12 ante another 2.8 percent in 2012-13, while freezing every other item in the state budget at his recommended 2010 level.
That proposal is about setting priorities, Pawlenty says -- but it also seems to be about driving a wedge between DFLers and their political allies in public schools. Pred'near every DFLer campaigned on a promise to increase school funding. But pred'near no DFLer is willing to put a hard freeze on every other item in the state budget to do it. Pawlenty says he is.
Whether to increase school funding in the middle of the meanest recession Minnesota has seen since the 1930s will be a matter for what might be called "spirited discussion" in coming weeks.
But no matter how the money argument is resolved, Johnson told me, money won't do enough by itself to make schools perform better. Too many Minnesota teens will still be leaving the K-12 system, either before or at graduation, ill-prepared for what comes afterward.
Johnson said he's sympathetic with Pawlenty's interest in linking school funding to student performance, and to the governor's teacher performance-pay experiment, Q Comp.
But he claimed that a potentially more effective idea for educational betterment is in the works. He predicted passage by the 2009 Legislature of several measures that would ease the way for groups of teachers and their districts to establish an array of new, small, teacher-directed public schools.
Much like charter schools -- last decade's Minnesota education innovation -- these new schools would be free of many of the state and local mandates and expectations that result in one-size-fits-all traditional schools. Teachers would continue to be district employees. But they would be encouraged to employ the latest research and materials to accommodate students' varied learning styles. They would be held accountable, by contract, for the student achievement that results.
The governor talks about holding teachers accountable for performance, too. But Johnson said that Pawlenty's method only goes so far.
"What we really need to do is talk about making teaching a better job," one in which well-trained professionals have more control over how they do their work. "Give them control, and we'll find it a lot easier to attract and hold on to quality performers."
There's an echo of health care reform here: Pay professionals to produce good outcomes, not for how many times they see a patient, or for how many years they've spent in the classroom.
There's also a parallel to the mandate relief that counties are seeking: Allow county commissioners, or teachers, the freedom to fulfill an assignment as they deem best, and make them accountable for results.
Behind all these ideas is a characteristically can-do Minnesota notion: We don't have to stop educating our children well, or caring decently for the needy and elderly among us, just because we have less money. Give us the time and the freedom to be creative, and we can find a way to function smarter with less.
The one-time federal stimulus money is buying two years of time. It's up to the Legislature to grant the freedom.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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