Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari deserve praise for highlighting Minnesota’s shameful racial disparity in education achievement. A state with as fine a civil rights legacy as ours should be doing a much better job of ensuring children of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds have a quality education.
Until every Minnesota child has access to this most critical of rights, equal opportunity will be a fantasy in the North Star State.
Justice Page and President Nashkari proposed a novel idea to tackle this monumental problem: Enshrine the Minnesota Constitution with language guaranteeing all children the fundamental right to a quality education. The spirit behind this concept seems certainly to be a good one.
But apparently Minnesota’s largest teachers union, Education Minnesota, does not think so (“Union raps achievement gap plan,” Jan. 9).
“The public schools paid for by the taxpayers should be available to every Minnesota family no matter where they are from, how they pray, whether their children have special needs, or who they love,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a written statement.
I could not agree with Specht more and, at first blush, struggle to see how the amendment conflicts with her laudable platitudes. But in later statements, she explained her union’s opposition is truly sourced in a belief that the amendment would pave the way for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.
If that is true, then I say it’s even more the reason to get the amendment process rolling.
If the state is in the mood for daring education reform — and the sad facts say it should be — then what about embracing this precept in addition to Specht’s: All Minnesota parents, regardless of income, should be able to send their child to a school of their choosing — public or private. By providing tax-credits for elementary and secondary education, our state can empower families stuck in failing schools to leave — now. No child should have to sacrifice years of learning while the wheels of reform at his or her government-assigned academy move slowly and sluggishly, or if at all.
Certainly, abandoning our public schools is not the correct course, but forcing them to compete with private institutions or shutter their doors is only fair to the families they are tasked to serve. Competition and choice will drive excellence in education just as it does in the private sector.
Education Minnesota represents 80,000 of Minnesota’s finest and most important public servants: teachers. While more freedom in schooling is surely good for parents and children, it is wise for public educators as well. Basic economic theory tells us that school choice makes sense for teachers too because it introduces competition for their employers. In a competitive education labor market, employers must actually compete for talent by offering teachers more autonomy, smaller class sizes and higher salaries to keep the good ones in their classrooms.
Perhaps nowhere could school choice have a greater impact than in Minneapolis, where public schools have performed poorly for generations and failed — despite the very best of intentions, dedicated teachers and generous funding — to provide far too many students with the academic foundation necessary for a prosperous life.
The 2018-19 results for the state reading and math tests show a huge gap between student groups there, with a 51 percentage-point difference in reading proficiency between white and minority students and a 52 percentage-point gap in math. Disgraceful disparities also remain in graduation rates, with 87% of white students there graduating on time compared with only 62% of minority students.
It is true that Minneapolis Public Schools have more students from families living at or below the poverty line than affluent suburban districts do and thus have unique challenges its educators nobly and selflessly face. But just because success is harder does not make it impossible.
Consider a special place called Hope Academy, a private, faith-based school located in a destitute neighborhood in south Minneapolis that has a beautifully diverse student population that is overwhelmingly minority. Hope has every hurdle of any Minneapolis public school; most Hope families live near or below the poverty line. In fact, the percentage of low-income families represented at Hope Academy is higher than that of the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Remarkably, however, 66.5% of Hope Academy’s students test at or above grade level in reading and 63.9% in math, compared with 26.3% and 23.8% respectively at neighboring public schools. And an astounding 98% of Hope’s student body graduates on time.
And the cost for Hope to produce these astonishing results? Around $10,500 per student (compared with $24,500 at her public counterparts).
A wise friend once told me: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” Education Minnesota’s unfailing commitment to the failing status quo (and the millions of dollars it spends annually to elect politicians to defend it) is a disservice both to the state and its own members. If we want to tackle the ignominious crisis of racial disparities in Minnesota education, we need intrepid reform. Lofty rhetoric and specifics lacking promises from politicians have delivered nothing. Providing educational tax credits for all Minnesota parents will not only allow them the choice they deserve to select whatever school is best for their children, but doing so will introduce the free market accountability and results driven reform our public educational institutions so desperately need and deserve.
Andy Brehm, of St. Paul, is a corporate attorney, political commentator and former press secretary to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.