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Minnesota gets 'D' for its school reforms

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2013 - 12:07 PM

Minnesota gets a "D" in education policy in a set of state report cards being issued Monday by the national education reform group StudentsFirst, which, as it turns out, is one tough audience.

The "D" is strong enough to propel the state to second place in the five-state region, just beneath Wisconsin with its "D+" and ahead of Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota -- each of which was assessed an "F."

The highest mark was a "B-" awarded to Florida and Louisiana.

For states to fare well in the group's rankings, the solution is simple: Adopt reform measures proposed by StudentsFirst, the group founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and a player in two high-profile legislative debates last year in Minnesota.

Minnesota is "stagnant when it comes to many critical education reforms," the report card states.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, incoming chairman of the House Education Policy Committee, said the state deserved a higher mark, perhaps a "B." Minnesota has made strides, he said, by easing alternative paths to teacher licensure, setting the stage for statewide teacher evaluations and grading schools on factors that include efforts to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students.

He downplayed the likelihood of bold reforms during the legislative session that begins Tuesday.

StudentsFirst last year backed a proposal scrapping the "last-in, first-out" seniority-based system of teacher layoffs and promoted giving parents the power to force changes in low-performing schools -- ideas that did not advance and are likely to face difficult challenges if pursued again this year.

Before the issuance of the report cards, StudentsFirst asked the state Department of Education for its input, and was turned down. Charlene Briner, the department's chief of staff, wrote in an e-mail to the group that StudentsFirst "seems to be focused on a specific agenda not entirely reflective" of work being done in Minnesota.

"We are doing things that we think can work and achieve results," she said on Friday.

A road map

The state-by-state assessments are the first to be made by StudentsFirst, and are based not on student or teacher performance, but on how states fare relative to a "road map" of policies that the group has created, said Kathy Saltzman, the group's state director and a former DFL state senator.

"This is not a one-year plan," she said.

She acknowledged some of StudentsFirst's policies might never be enacted in Minnesota.

The group advocates for mayoral control of low-performing school districts and, as part of the report card evaluation, it gave the state a 0 on a 4.0 scale for not having such a statute in place. Saltzman said Friday she knew of no mayor who supported the move. Similarly, the national group says Minnesota "must" enact a voucher program to help empower parents, yet Saltzman said vouchers are not part of the platform she is pursuing.

She wants to find quicker ways to replicate successful charter schools and to close those that are low-performing. She says she also will pursue giving districts greater flexibility in staffing decisions, which she sees as a broader effort than the "last-in, first-out" bill, which the group still supports.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, said Monday that if StudentsFirst had taken into account how well the state’s schools educate students, Minnesota and Massachusetts would win high marks and Louisiana would not be viewed as a model.

“StudentsFirst has been pushing a narrow, divisive agenda around the country and this report card only represents its assessment of how well politicians have fallen in line,” he said.

State Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who won election to the state Senate last November, said that the report “shows that there are many issues we need to address in the interest of our kids. I will ask, and at times challenge, my colleagues to join this conversation.”

Mariani said that he respected StudentsFirst for the questions it raises, but is yet to be sold on its policy proposals. Among his first priorities, he said, is for the committee to pass a strong anti-bullying bill.

As for reform measures, he said that the Education Policy Committee may step back from the pitched battles of recent years over such issues as teacher performance and, instead, "take a big breath" and assess the work educators are doing on those fronts.

But, then, he added, he was being more hopeful than certain.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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