Gubernatorial candidates offer different paths to improving education.
Gov. Mark Dayton and his Republican opponent, Jeff Johnson, both hold education at the core of why they went into politics. But they offer starkly different approaches to how Minnesota should fund and manage its schools.
A strong education system is central to Minnesota’s identity but also a point of constant partisan tension at the Capitol. This year it sets up a grudge match between some of the state’s most prominent political interests: while DFLer Dayton touts his backing by the powerful Education Minnesota teachers union, Johnson is counting on support from influential business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership that are heavily critical of Dayton’s approach to schools.
As the school year gets going, one of Dayton’s major accomplishments is coming into view: For the first time, every school district in the state offers all-day kindergarten because of a funding increase Dayton first promised as a candidate in 2010 and that he and a DFL-led Legislature delivered last year. Previously, many Minnesota families paid as much as $2,500 per child for all-day kindergarten.
“I said in 2010 I would increase state funding for our public schools every year as governor, no excuses, no exceptions, and I kept that promise,” said Dayton, who often cites his stint as a New York City public schoolteacher from 1969 to 1971 as a major inspiration for his later political career.
Johnson says he too would make education his top funding priority but would go about it differently.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to all-day kindergarten,” said Johnson, whose sons participated in the program at Wayzata public schools. “But rather than say we increased education spending by a lot but told districts how they have to spend it, my preference would be to let them [districts] decide.”
Greater school control
Johnson says that as a rule the state should attach fewer requirements to the money it gives schools. Rather, he said, local school district leaders and parents should get greater say over how money is spent, even if it comes from taxpayers across the state. School leaders should also have more control over hiring and firing of teachers, he said, with decisions based on performance, not seniority.
A similar impulse was at the heart of Johnson’s first foray into politics. A suburban parent and corporate attorney in the late ‘90s, Johnson first entered the Legislature by opposing a controversial set of state-mandated graduation standards — since scrapped — called the Profile of Learning.
State spending on education has risen steadily under Dayton, made possible by an economic recovery and tax increases that generated revenue surpluses after nearly a decade of deficits.
Between 2011 and this year, Dayton signed bills that boosted direct state funding to schools by $371 million. In addition to $134 million for universal all-day kindergarten, Dayton pushed spending increases for special education and on scholarships that would help low- and middle-income families enroll their kids in early learning programs.
“That’s probably the principal reason we raised taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent, to enable us to increase our spending on public education,” Dayton said.
Now as he mounts his re-election bid, Dayton is counting on the strong backing of Education Minnesota, which supported him in 2010. Serving at a time when many of his Republican counterparts nationwide have tried to weaken the influence of teachers unions, Dayton instead has won national acclaim from such groups. In 2012, the National Education Association — the country’s largest labor union representing 3.2 million teachers and school employees nationwide — bestowed upon Dayton its annual “America’s Greatest Education Governor” award.
Education Minnesota has about 70,000 dues-paying members statewide. Campaign finance records show that from 2007 to 2013 only the Chamber of Commerce spent more than Education Minnesota on lobbying at the Capitol (about $13.2 million for the chamber vs. $7.2 million for the union).
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota and a former elementary teacher in Circle Pines and Forest Lake, said Dayton “has made investments in public education like we’ve never seen before.”
The union is running TV ads touting the onset of guaranteed all-day kindergarten and in a mid-August letter to union members, Specht encouraged a $50 donation to Dayton’s re-election campaign. The union has contributed significantly to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a DFL-aligned advocacy group that has run television ads criticizing Johnson’s record on education as a legislator.
Johnson and Republicans are critical of the ties between Dayton and Education Minnesota. Johnson charged that several high-profile decisions from Dayton’s first term prove the governor is too quick to do the union’s bidding: His 2012 veto of a GOP-sponsored bill to allow teacher dismissal without regard to seniority; Dayton’s 2013 line-item veto of $1.5 million to fund Teach for America, which gives recent college graduates a path to teaching outside the standard training routine; and his support for legislation that ended a skills test for teachers.
“I really believe teacher’s union leaders are running our policy in this state,” Johnson said. “That’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s true.”