OPINION | Only education builds Minnesota’s future


Monday evening, standing in my kitchen chatting with my wife’s cousin, it all came together. Education is Minnesota’s only path to prosperity. 

Monday evening was hot and humid. Our house is not air conditioned. We rely on a Maginot Line of box fans to cool our home or at least move the warm air between rooms. Out of town family’s annual summer visit merited a summer reunion and twenty-odd adults and children joined us for dinner. Until 7:00pm, our closed, un-air conditioned house was cooler than the back yard but not by much.

I’m fortunate. I like my wife’s family and enjoy their company. But, like so many people juggling work, kids and lives, we don’t see them very often. An early evening, early in the week supper seemed like a great idea and, uncontrollable weather issues aside, it was.

Later, after dinner, leaning against the kitchen counter, I conversed with my wife’s cousin. She’s a divorced mom of two, living in the southeast suburbs. Catching up, I learned that she’s still working as a teaching assistant and substitute teacher in an east Metro school district. In the past several years, as the number of school children per classroom has grown, she’s seen her teaching assistant hours cut back.

In any school budgetary belt-tightening, classroom paraprofessionals are always the first jobs eliminated. That means two things. For my wife’s cousin, she works less, earning less money and fewer benefits. For the kids in her assigned classrooms, they have fewer adults helping them learn. Not only is the school teacher being assigned more kids, but that increased load must be borne without extra hands and eyes.

School research data is uniformly clear regarding instructional methodology. Hoping kids learn from sitting in an overcrowded classroom with reduced individual student-teacher engagement doesn’t yield improved educational results. The opposite is true. The risk of sub-standard performance grows as kids are asked to learn more with fewer resources. Some will succeed but an increasing number will not.

Learning is an accumulative activity. Ironically, not learning, particularly in a curricular environment based on previous materials mastery, is equally accumulative. Kids failing to grasp critical reading, math, logical and analytical concepts fall further behind as they progress through the school year. Unless intervention occurs, like summer school or afterschool programs, stumbling children will stumble sooner and harder in the next year. That sucking sound you hear is Minnesota’s future prosperity being flushed away to satisfy failed conservative fiscal policy’s ideologically-driven demands.

My wife’s cousin, reflecting on diminishing educational funding, concluded that her classroom hours would continue evaporating. With two kids to support, she considered her options and decided to return to school. To date, she’s half-way through Inver Hills Community College’s paralegal program.

A paralegal assists an attorney but is not a licensed attorney. They receive specialized training enabling them to work in a legal environment but don’t represent clients. Private law firms typically hire a lot of paralegals as key elements in their business service models. An experienced paralegal makes a good living. It’s not lawyer money but it’s better than a classroom teaching assistant with uncertain hours. Getting there requires substantial study.

Minnesota benefits when Minnesotans invest in themselves, taking risks to improve their lives. There’s no guarantee that my wife’s cousin will succeed as a paralegal but, contemplating her family’s life, she’s concluded that re-tooling her skill set is a better bet than waiting for the next round of school classroom assistant lay-offs.

Now, here’s the kicker. Inver Hills Community College, like every state-supported higher educational institution is also under the financial gun. Funding is down but enrollment is up as laid-off, downsized Minnesotans make my wife’s cousin’s choice, preparing for a changing workplace. Minnesota’s community colleges, in particular, are our first and last line of midcareer-change defense because learning is a life-long need. Minnesota’s future prosperity is predicated on building the most highly educated, adaptable and flexible workforce in state history. If we don’t recognize this need, plan accordingly and fund appropriately, we won’t have many opportunities.

Conservative public policy has a single objective. It guides community investment outcomes into the fewest, wealthiest hands. Simply stated, conservative policy makes it easier for conservative beneficiaries of publicly-funded schools, roads, affordable health care, economic development initiatives and police/fire protection to selfishly hoard their gains. Pulling the publicly-funded ladder of success, after having climbed it, has never been so easy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Strong schools, affordable health care, robust transportation infrastructure and effective economic development are Minnesota’s building blocks. Public investments must accrue to the investors. They must accrue to all Minnesotans and not, as they increasingly are, to a few.