Education becomes key issue in governor's raceby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
Public education is traditionally a top issue for many Minnesota voters, and this year's election is no exception. A recent Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press poll found 24 percent of those surveyed ranked education as the most important issue in the governor's race. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty is highlighting his first-term accomplishments including a big boost in school funding over the last two years. His opponents, DFLer Mike Hatch and the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson, argue that Pawlenty's decisions have shortchanged schools and put college students deeper in debt.
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty often boasts that he's helped restore Minnesota's reputation as a leader in education reform. He ranks his work on performance-based pay for teachers along side the state's cutting-edge innovations in charter schools and open enrollment. So far, 26 out of 343 school districts have received extra state funding to change the way teachers get paid. Pawlenty was in Eden Prairie last spring to celebrate that school district's switch to the new system known as Q-Comp.
"Well I'm very proud of it," Pawlenty said at the time. "It's done in partnership with our wonderful teachers in Minnesota. It provides some extra funding for the reform. And moving from a culture of seniority to a culture of performance is a big reform. It's nation leading. We're the first state to do it."
Q-Comp came out of a Legislative session in 2005 that increased funding for schools by $800 million. It was a big change from the previous budget, when a large deficit kept funding levels frozen and put the squeeze on school districts. Pawlenty is promising more money for education in a second term, but he wants districts held accountable for how it gets spent.
One of Pawlenty's campaign ads shows he'd also take another run at an issue that faced stiff opposition in the Legislature.
"Our kids deserve the best education. So let's increase funding for our schools, but let's also hold them accountable for better results. Let's put at least 70 percent of the money here in the classroom, not here on more bureaucracy Here, on kids," the ad says.
Pawlenty's 70-percent approach is a slightly more ambitious version of a nationwide campaign. The group First Class Education is pushing for every state to reallocate school spending so that at least 65 percent of funding goes directly into classrooms by 2008.
"Requiring that as much money as possible, 70 percent, gets into the classroom is an accountability measure," Pawlenty said. "It's not the only thing, but it's one thing that will hold feet to the fire about where the money is going."
But critics claim there's no evidence the spending threshold improves student achievement. Peter Hutchinson, the Independence Party candidate for governor, says Minnesota school districts have already pared down non-classroom spending.
"Statewide in Minnesota, on average, we spend 69 percent of our resources in the classroom," Hutchinson said. "As a bold stroke of leadership Tim Pawlenty wants to move this to 70 percent. Well I think you've got to say about one percent is what it is. It's pretty tiny. And it's not where the core challenges are."
Hutchinson says the core challenges in education include preparing all children to enter school ready to learn. He wants a bigger state investment in early childhood education programs and all-day, everyday kindergarten. Early childhood programs took a budget hit in 2003 under Pawlenty. Hutchinson also wants high school graduates better prepared for college.
"Talking remedial colleges when you get to college is not only humiliating, it is a waste of money and time," Huthcinson said. "And 36 percent of our youngsters end up taking these remedial courses. That's just wrong."
Hutchinson claims the state could save $40 million if students weren't taking remedial courses in college. He says that money could go toward boosting need-based financial aid.
DFL candidate Mike Hatch is also targeting the high cost of college, which he blames on the incumbent governor. To help resolve a $4 billion budget shortfall in 2003, Pawlenty and the Legislature cut higher education funding by about $380 million.
"The cost of college is stretching middle class families to the limit," the Hatch ad says. "Tuition is up 50 percent in four years. Too many kids can't afford to go. As governor, I'll close a $300 million tax loop hole that allows corporations to hide profits over seas. And I'll use every dollar to roll back college tuition."
That's one of the most specific education proposals from Hatch. The rest are short of details. Hatch says he supports early childhood education and all-day kindergarten. And he doesn't like the federal No Child Left Behind law or its testing mandates.
"I'm in favor of measurable outcomes, but right now we have too many teachers in too many classrooms teaching to a test," Hatch said. "In other words, they're not teaching kids to learn, they're simply teaching them to pass a test."
Hatch is also raising questions about the cost and management of statewide testing under the Pawlenty administration. Specifically, he has suspicions about the delayed release of this year's reading and math scores, as well as the report cards that show how individuals schools are performing. The information is traditionally released during the State Fair but won't be out this year until mid-November. Hatch raised the point in a recent debate.
"Something went wrong, and we still don't know what happened," Hatch said. "Because the statute says it's supposed to be released, however, a school district can appeal its designation if it disagrees. But they never got their designation. They got a letter from the department of education saying please ask to keep these secret until after the election."
But Gov. Pawlenty countered with what he sees as a simple explanation for the delay. He said more time was necessary this year because the state switched to new, more rigorous tests.
"So it's new interpretation, new data," Pawlenty said. "The results are going to be very varied and different from what school districts are used to. So we gave them a window of time to have some change to correct it, look at it, interpret it, be comfortable with it as you present it to parents and to the communities. That's the reason for the delay. It's not some conspiracy or black helicopter operation. It's just trying to give schools and parents a cushion on a new test."
Recent polls show Pawlenty and Hatch running neck and neck, with Hutchison a distant third. Undecided voters, like Kelly Johnson of Apple Valley, could decide the election. Johnson, a mother of two pre-school age children, says education is her top issue. But she isn't satisfied with what she's heard from the two frontrunners.
"I don't want to hear what Gov. Pawlenty did last year," Johnson said. "I don't want to hear about what he did the year before. I want to hear a plan about how he's going to go forward. For Hatch, same thing. He has vague sort of suggestions. He wants to narrow the achievement gap for pre-school children and he wants to fund higher education. Well how are you going to make that happen? If you went into a bank, and you asked them for money, they would want to see your business plan. I want to see a business plan. I want to know how you're going to spend my money. That's what I want to know."
Members of the education establishment are also looking for more details. Charlie Kyte of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators says he hasn't heard any of the candidates spell out what they want to do for education and how they'll accomplish it.
"I tend to sort of hear a no new taxes drum beat from both parties," Kyte said. "And that concerns me. I've always been a fairly conservative person in terms of running school districts, in terms of finance, and always felt you had to squeeze every penny out of every dollar you spent. But unless we have an adequate level of funding, we're going to have trouble going forward."
Kyte says he wants the candidates talking about ways to de-politicize public education. Specifically, he'd like them to support an independent education commissioner, more consistent state education policy and a stabilized and simplified system of school funding.
- Morning Edition, 10/03/2006, 7:20 a.m.