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.”

Dayton said his goals and those of the Education Minnesota often overlap but that he charts his own course. As an example, he cited a 2011 law he signed that ultimately will make it easier to weed out ineffective teachers and principals. The teacher evaluation portion — which Education Minnesota opposed — comes online this fall. Within a few years, Dayton said, it “will provide school districts with the evidence they need to go find other opportunities for teachers that are not well-suited for the profession.”

For Johnson, giving schools the leverage to fire poor teachers is more than a guiding principle. It’s why he got into politics.

His first bill as a newly minted lawmaker in 2001 was aimed at loosening the state’s control over how schools spend money. Thirteen years later, Johnson’s goal remains the same. He’d like to eliminate the state requirement that schools set aside money for teacher development and the mandate that contractors hired for school construction pay the prevailing wage to workers.

School leaders, Johnson said, can best decide how to deploy their resources and staff. Local control, he said, is also the best way to tackle an achievement gap between white and minority students that is among the worst in the country.

Closing the gap

Dayton has been able to point to a few areas of progress in closing that gap.

The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress report card, a frequently cited source on nationwide achievement gaps, found that black and Hispanic fourth-graders in Minnesota have improved on reading scores by 10 test points since 2009. The assessment found after ranking 22nd in math tests in 2011, black students in Minnesota performed fourth highest nationwide in math. But there remains room for improvement. For eighth-graders here, the gap between white and black students in reading was the seventh-largest in the country and fourth-largest for math.

Dayton’s approach has been to aim more funding at younger students, with the idea that early intervention sets a better path. He said that in a second term, a top goal would be extending access to pre-kindergarten learning options to all 4- and 5-year-olds in the state.

Johnson says more responsibility for outcomes should fall on teachers.

“Most of our teachers now are great,” he said. But, he said, some teachers are not great and some don’t fit their classrooms. “What this administration has done is made it almost impossible for a school district to switch those two out.”

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce for years has pushed education policies aimed at creating a better state workforce. That group echoes many of Johnson’s criticisms.

Johnson also said he’s intrigued by a new law in California called “parent trigger,” which allows parents to petition for changes in their children’s schools if the schools are underperforming. These include converting a traditional school to a charter school, replacing teachers and administrators and even closing the school altogether.

“I think these are exactly the kinds of choices we should be providing,” Johnson said.