In his inaugural address this week, Gov. Mark Dayton said improved public education is his priority for the next four years. With that impetus, a number of education groups and stakeholders have laid out platforms for how the state can accomplish that worthy goal.
They understand that doing a better job educating more Minnesota kids is directly tied to the state’s social and economic success. Well-educated students become good workers, who in turn boost Minnesota’s quality of life. And though Minnesota students generally do well on many national academic measures, the state continues to have troubling learning disparities between white students and the rapidly growing population of lower-income students of color.
Among proven strategies that can narrow those gaps are improved instruction, quality preschool, adequate school funding, and support services to children and families.
On instruction, the new statewide teacher evaluations should be used to strengthen teaching. The performance reviews should be used both to support teachers who need help improving and to counsel some out of the profession. Numerous studies show that teacher quality is the major school factor that affects student achievement.
With the evaluation now in place, the Legislature should renew its push for a bill that would allow school districts to retain the best teachers when staffing levels are reduced. Current “last in, first out,” or LIFO, rules make seniority the sole factor when districts downsize unless school boards have negotiated other agreements.
In 2012, the Legislature passed a LIFO bill that was supported by education-reform advocates — including a handful of DFL legislators, public polls and this page. The bill would have scrapped the seniority-only provision and replaced it with a system based on licensure and teacher performance along with seniority. Unfortunately, Dayton sided with the powerful Education Minnesota union and vetoed the measure.
With the change to a Republican House majority this year, there’s an appetite to repeal teacher-tenure laws altogether. Facing that push, Education Minnesota would be wise to work with legislators and Dayton on a compromise along the lines of the 2012 bill.
The governor and the Star Tribune Editorial Board also support expanding preschool opportunities for the state’s 4-year-olds. Last session, progress was made toward offering early education to the state’s neediest kids. But in its most recent annual study, Education Week gave Minnesota a “D” grade in access to preschool.
At the other end of the student spectrum, kids need more options to meld college and vocational training with their high school experiences. All students need some kind of post-high-school training to move into good-paying jobs. That’s why legislators should expand opportunities for students to earn postsecondary credits while in high school and consider other ways to transform schools into more seamless Pre-K-to-14 systems.
The state also could help its students by taking on a greater share of special education funding. The Association of Metropolitan School Districts reports that special-ed costs exceeded state and federal aid by almost $360 million in 2013 for member districts. If the federal and state governments picked up a greater share of those mandated costs, districts could use those funds for general education.
Legislators also should provide incentives for agencies that serve lower-income families to work more closely with schools. Many students who struggle most in school come from families that need social services. Coordinating and co-locating those services can support improved student learning.
It’s our hope that other worthy education proposals will come before the Legislature this year.
As the session proceeds, we’ll also learn more about the price tags on proposed initiatives and will learn whether new funds can be raised or how current dollars might be reallocated.
The Legislature should join Dayton in making education a priority in 2015. Improving student achievement will help build a workforce that will benefit all Minnesotans.