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Lori Sturdevant: A seasoned agitator makes waves about school levies

  • Article by: Lori Sturdevant
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2007 - 4:23 PM

My ol' Coe College classmate, Phil Krinkie, got 'em riled last week, as a newspaper essay and a video clip of his remarks about K-12 education issues made the progressive e-rounds.

The voters of District 53A gave eight-term Republican House member Krinkie his walking papers last fall. He walked straight to the presidency of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota -- home of the infamous "no new taxes" pledge.

From that position, a guy who sells heating and air conditioning systems for a living can stir up trouble for schools, just in time for Tuesday's levy referendums in 99 of the state's school districts. For example:

•In the Oct. 29 St. Paul Legal Ledger, Krinkie claimed that increasing school levies would benefit not students but teachers' unions. They represent a "legacy" bureaucracy (think: auto and airline industries), too generous with tenure, promotions, pensions and health care, he argued.

•At a Sept. 14 forum sponsored by Schools for Equity in Education, Krinkie opined that high school class sizes should be larger. "If the University of Minnesota can have 200 students in a classroom, why can't your high school?"

•He seemed to suggest that parents ought to pay more for public education. "For most parents, cash out of pocket? Little or nothing. But yet, they can continue to make demands on the system. They don't have any 'skin in the game.'"

•He urged that Minnesota "stop spending millions and millions of dollars [on special education], where there is no true possibility of academic improvement."

•And he opined that disruptive students should be permanently removed from public school classrooms. "Give them a voucher and say goodbye."

(A video of his Sept. 14 performance can be seen at www.mn2020.org.)

It added up to a revealing glimpse into the mind-set of a school levy referendum opponent -- or did it? Where are you going with this, Phil? Privatization of the schools?

"No, I still think public education can work," a toned-down Krinkie told me last week. "With more than 800,000 students in this state, you'd have to be crazy to think we could give them a voucher next week and improve education. Nothing would change. It would take years for the infrastructure alone to change.

"Besides, we have schools and teachers that do an outstanding job."

So those teachers shouldn't have good pensions or health care?

"I'm not saying that. I'm saying that there needs to be more market forces at work in teaching. If you have an oversupply of English and social science teachers, what you pay them ought to go down, relatively ... . If you want more math and science teachers, you're going to have to pay them more."

Notice how much more reasonable a zealot can sound when chatting with an old classmate than when performing on the stump?

In his new role, Krinkie ranks among a sizeable cadre of professional political provocateurs. Their jobs are to kindle the biases that push Minnesotans into mutually mistrustful camps. They toss red meat to the most ideologically tilted of their allies -- often in an attempt to persuade them to write the fat donation checks that keep the raw words coming.

What they don't do is help solve complex public problems, like those that beset Minnesota's schools.

The fact is, Minnesotans have long had Cadillac ambitions and Chevy budgets for their public schools. Minnesota teachers' salaries hover around the national average. Growth in state outlays for schools in this decade has not kept pace with inflation.

Schools are pinched. But student achievement has held up reasonably well in much of the state, thanks to a veteran teaching corps and relatively homogeneous student bodies. Yet the imminent retirement of baby boomer teachers and the growing class and cultural diversity of students signal difficulty ahead. So does the need for an even better educated workforce, to stay prosperous in a global economy.

More money for schools won't guarantee continued strong achievement. But less money almost certainly guarantees the opposite. Even Phil allows that "in some cases, reauthorization of levies is probably very necessary."

Both literally and figuratively, Krinkie is in the heating business. On Tuesday, Minnesota voters shouldn't be.

CORRECTION

Last week's column erred in saying that Indian deaths in the Dakota War of 1862 exceeded those of white settlers. While no exact Dakota casualty count exists, I heard last week from several historians who said Dakota losses during the five weeks of actual combat were closer to 50, while white deaths exceeded 500. The aftermath of the fighting, of course, was another matter. Thanks to those sharp readers for helping set this column straight.

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

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