Thursday night, the three leading gubernatorial candidates squared off in a debate in Twin Cities Public Television’s St Paul studio focused on education. The night was long on hopes and aspirations, and short on specific proposals for addressing urban, suburban, and rural challenges, leaving some education leaders dismayed at prospects for the future of Minnesota’s public schools.
“Plastic” was how outgoing Minneapolis Public Schools board member Chris Stewart described the evening, criticizing DFLer Mark Dayton, GOPer Tom Emmer, and IP candidate Tom Horner for not providing specific plans in how they would address the state’s persistent achievement gap between students of color and white students.
“Urban school districts are the canary in the coal mine,” Minneapolis schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson told the Daily Planet in an interview on Friday. “Suburbs and other school districts are seeing an increase in poverty and diversity, and the old solutions and strategies don’t support the challenges we face” in closing the achievement gap.
Stewart’s former colleague, Pam Costain agreed with his assessment. “I didn’t hear any specific proposals tonight,” she told the Daily Planet, lamenting the reluctance to address funding problems at the state level, where in per-pupil dollars, state funding to school districts has declined significantly in recent years.
“There’s no money now nor in the near future” for public education, she said. Without a reform of school funding mechanisms, “public education will continue sliding down.”
“It’s true there’s no cheap or easy way out,” State Rep. Carlos Mariani told The Daily Planet after the debate. “Still, I was surprised to see the amount of agreement on a number of issues tonight.” Mariani is the chair of the House’s committee on K-12 education funding and oversight.
All three candidates voiced agreement on the need for some kind of reform of public school teachers’ tenure system, improving potential teachers’ access to alternative teacher licensure paths, the need to close the achievement gap, the need to increase parents’ involvement in schools, and the importance of early childhood and pre-kindergarten education.
Horner, Dayton, and debate moderator Cathy Wurzer all pointed out that Emmer had voted against a measure specifically authorizing money for early childhood education last year.
Each candidate referenced education proposals have made in the last two weeks, but did not share the specific budget proposals that local education leaders and thinkers in the audience were thirsting for. MPR has previously published interviews in which Horner, Emmer, and Dayton set out their education plans.
Their biggest near-term worry was whether the next state budget would include $1 billion to repay the payments to schools that the legislature voted to delay last year. Without this money from the state, school districts will need to continue paying interest on loans they took out to cover the unexpected shortfall in revenues. Horner said his budget proposal would defer repayment for another year. Emmer agreed, and proposed to save money by not increasing school funding between the 2010 and 2011 budgets to account for inflation, a position which drew fire from his fellow candidates. Dayton, who faces a nearly $800 billion mismatch between expected revenues and proposed spending in his budget proposal, said he would defer repayment only as a last resort to bridging that gap.
In an email to the Daily Planet, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators suggested a novel approach to repaying schools and ensuring school funding kept pace with inflation. “In regard to the ‘shift,’ Superintendents want both a promise of future repayment and a long term, incremental plan to do so. Ideally there would be a dedicated revenue stream to repay the shift over 7-10 years.”