With the start of Minnesota's legislative session nearing, several education groups have been pushing the Legislature to establish an independent commission to research state education policy and look at efficient, innovative ways to educate Minnesota students.

Groups such as Parents United for Public Schools and the Association of Metropolitan School Districts say it will help the state's education system if legislators are armed with good, independent peer-reviewed research. And they say it will help the state's taxpayers when education policies that are ineffective or inefficient are proven to be so, and are ended.

"We as legislators are constantly asked to make some very hard decisions that impact many, many lives, and we don't always have good research at our disposal," said Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, who is working on drafting the legislation.

An independent research group would likely be funded by start-up money from the state -- maybe $200,000, according to Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. Then, it would seek independent foundation and grant money, and try to get some help from higher education research institutions, he said.

Part of the point, education groups say, is to separate two long-time bedfellows: politics and education policy.

"We're trying to say there is a better system," said Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United. "One is to actually use evidence-based research in order to put policy in play that is consistent and accountable."

The Minnesota Department of Education has concerns about the creation of such a research group because it has a research department, spokesman Randy Wanke said.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren also released a statement saying that "duplicating duties and services already in place at [the department] and within other governmental entities is not an efficient use of limited resources" and that the department is dedicated to working with educators and policymakers to continue and expand efforts to improve student performance through "increased rigor and accountability."

But the groups advocating for this independent commission think the department is "too political" to be trusted with this role, and too busy focusing on state testing mandates to think big about what the future holds.

"Too often, the department gets caught up in some of the partisan politics because the commissioner is a political appointee," Croonquist said. "It doesn't matter which party is in control, the department is going to be viewed as an instrument of the executive branch."

One thing that might make legislators think twice before approving such an office, Cecconi said, is that legislators with pet projects they want to enact might not be happy with what the research shows.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, agreed.

"It could be free of our own particular political goals," he said. "Even the best of us are often tempted to play out our political, partisan goals, and are sometimes less guided by what good, sound research tells us."

Tough to get money this year

Minnesota already has a patchwork of groups conducting research on education in the state. Colleges and universities step in -- for example, the University of Minnesota has the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement -- research groups such as Wilder Research release studies on the state's educational system, and various public policy groups do studies of their own.

Both the Minnesota House and Senate have nonpartisan research departments that can provide research and legal services to members.

But there's not really an organized way, proponents say, for legislators to request research on the newest and best education practices or controversial new issues that come into the public arena.

"We've seen it happen too many times," said Croonquist, "where important issues like state accountability tests become politicized, instead of legislators basing decision on the data, the research, the best evidence available. They too often end up being made on a partisan basis."

But in a year when the state Legislature is facing a $5.2 billion two-year deficit, even proposals that cost much less than the research group will be in for a tough ride.

That doesn't dissuade Cecconi.

"We as the public need to be saying, 'Excuse me, how is this money being used?'"

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541