VOICES | Another dubious Minnesota milestone

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Teach for America is coming to Minnesota. It’s a dubious achievement because it speaks volumes about Minnesota’s declining school funding and quality.

Teach for America, the service-based, non-traditional teacher program, works in our nation’s poorest and poorest performing school districts. Based on a volunteer service model, it recruits and places recent college graduates, mostly liberal arts majors, into classroom teaching roles. The non-profit group recently announced plans to expand into Minnesota.

Frankly, we should be embarrassed.

Looking at a map, the closest TFA service points are inner-city Chicago schools and South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation. Kentucky isn’t even on TFA’s list and the last time I checked, Appalachian communities weren’t exactly toping public school performance charts.

I have my own concerns with TFA. I admire their service impulse. I think they’ve learned critical lessons from VISTA and Peace Corps experiences. I appreciate their mission discipline, addressing structural school shortcomings. However, teaching is not an interesting post-undergraduate diversion. Improving our poorest and poorest performing schools require the best, most passionate talent; a clear plan; and adequate, dependable funding.

I would prefer that TFA teachers supplement a focused program rather than becoming perpetual short-term gap filler. I’m not knocking TFA staff’s service impulse and two-year commitment but teaching is teaching, not mission work.

Why Minnesota and why now?

TFA President Matt Kramer cited Minnesota’s growing achievement gap as TFA’s principal reason for expanding here. “Minnesota, more so than it used to, has real socioeconomic inequalities, and kids from low-income communities in Minnesota aren’t getting the same opportunities that they would need to really have an equal chance in life,” Kramer said in a Minnesota Public Radio interview.

“Over time, Minnesota has become a place that has a quite significant achievement gap and kids in low-income communities in Minnesota – there are more of them than there used to be.”

This is what we get for six years of slavish, unyielding devotion to a conservative, “no new taxes” public policy agenda. Our school performance is slipping to the point that we qualify for charity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Minnesota can adequately fund and staff its schools. All it takes is public will and leadership. Regretfully, that leadership won’t be coming from the State Capitol.

Governor Pawlenty doesn’t share our vision of strong public schools. Despite his own public education, he supports conservative educational policies that undermine public schools. He perpetuates conservative myths rather than thoughtfully addressing Minnesota’s challenges.

Pawlenty, framing his “no revenue increases” argument during the legislative session’s first day, said “In a high taxed state that’s in a geographic zone that is losing investment, job growth, capital formation, entrepreneurial activity, business expansion and we’re already at or near the top of the chart on tax burdens, I think we should live within what we’ve got. Not add to it.”

The problem is, he’s wrong.

Minnesota is target=”_blank”>no longer a high tax state; we’re a middling tax state with the mediocre roads, schools and business climate to show for it. And, now, we’re going to have Teach for America teachers just like America’s other 29 worst-off regions.

A single, loud and clear wake up call, like the 35W bridge collapse, is rarely heard. Rather, that call is expressed quietly through small signals, growing as a crisis approaches. Do we recognize the alarm or dismiss it as so much back-chatter?

Strong public schools are Minnesota’s backbone. Yes, we need all the help we can get but first, let’s help ourselves. We can and we should. Our problems are real but they aren’t intractable and perpetually systemic.

Yet.