Improving the public school experience for students of color, and helping all students and schools come back from devastation wrought by the pandemic, are the major goals of an education proposal that Gov. Tim Walz outlined Monday.
"It might be easy to say, well, we can't do much now, we're focused on COVID, we don't have the resources," Walz said at a news conference in St. Paul. But with racial inequities laid more bare than ever by the pandemic and last year's killing of George Floyd, Walz said, failure to tackle them together "would be exactly the wrong solution."
Over decades, those persistent inequities have left Minnesota with some of the widest gaps in educational outcomes between white and nonwhite students. Even as Walz asks state legislators to steer new money toward relieving financial burdens and student dislocation brought on by the pandemic, his plan also makes a big investment in programs and policies aimed squarely at the achievement gap.
That includes proposals to tailor academic standards to be "reflective of students of color and Indigenous students," according to a plan summary. Another is an "Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Center" within the Minnesota Department of Education to address systemic racism, to "ensure students receive an accurate history of Minnesota's Indigenous people" and to "develop and provide training for all school staff on anti-bias practices."
"This needs to be the best state in the country for a child to grow up," Walz said. "Brown, Black, white, Indigenous."
What Walz didn't say on Monday was how much what appears to be an ambitious slate of new state programs and services would cost. His plan also includes expanded early-learning opportunities and greater access to out-of-school opportunities. He promised additional details on Tuesday, when he lays out his full 2022-23 budget.
The state is facing a projected $1.3 billion shortfall between spending obligations and revenue for that period; Walz's administration has revealed in recent days that the governor is planning to propose a tax increase on wealthy Minnesotans and corporations.
That's likely to get a chilly reception from legislative Republicans, whose majority in the state Senate positions them to put limits on Walz's most ambitious spending proposals.
"These are not Minnesota priorities; Minnesotans are not asking for more of the same," said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "They are asking for choice, for self-determination, and to get all kids back in schools right now."
State Rep. Ron Kresha, the lead Republican on the House Education Finance Committee, said Walz's plan "lacks any meaningful reforms to raise academic achievement."
Without specifying what part of the proposal he was referring to, Kresha, R-Little Falls, said that "indoctrinating students with messages that focus on our country's flaws won't raise the percentage of kids reading at grade level. It won't help increase math scores."
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who worked with interest groups to craft the education proposal, said many of its provisions were specifically designed to help students of color. She described proposals like the equity office at the Department of Education, anti-bias training for all school staff and teaching accurate Indigenous history as "specific, tangible action items to close the gap between white students and students of color."
Heather Mueller, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, said formation of the equity office is already underway and that the department plans to soon advertise for someone to lead it. Some of its funding could be achieved by moving other resources around, absent legislative approval, she said.
The state is spending about $20 billion on public education in the current two-year budget cycle — more than 40% of total state spending. "A budget is a fiscal document but it's also a moral document," said Walz, a former teacher.
As more Minnesotans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and state policymakers look to a time when the pandemic is receding, Walz's plan aims to prioritize in-person learning for as many students as possible.
That includes boosting state funds for academic opportunities and mental health services during the upcoming summer break and through the following school year, and a one-time spending infusion to help public schools make up for pandemic-driven enrollment loss.
"We're still at the deepest, darkest part of the COVID pandemic," Walz said. "But that doesn't stop us from imagining what comes afterwards."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413