Ed officials discuss Dayton’s plan for schools

MARSHALL – The education system in Minnesota is expected to get a much-needed makeover in the near future thanks to Gov. Mark Dayton’s Seven-Point Plan for Excellence in Education. Along with Dayton’s proposed education budget and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius’ efforts and support, the plan looks to provide a brighter future for many more students in Minnesota.

In February of 2011, Dayton revealed his vision in “Better Schools for a Better Minnesota,” a seven-point plan for comprehensive education reform. Then, in his recently-released budget, Dayton showed his commitment to the cause by proposing more than $640 million in education investments.

“It’s seeing the whole picture,” Cassellius said. “It’s building the whole system and aligning the system. It really needs to be thought of in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, you end up leaving out one element.”

A positive change in the education system is long overdue, Cassellius said, adding that the process involved building on current strengths.

“Minnesotans have always been known for Minnesota nice and for investing in education,” she said. “We used to have the gold standard of education in the nation. We were the envy. But now, our graduation rates have slipped to 27th in the nation. We cannot expect a world-class workforce if we’re going to disinvest in our public schools. It’s just not going to happen.”

Cassellius noted that years of disinvestment where funding has been cut, teachers have been blamed and schools have been closed or consolidated, has put Minnesota education in its current state.

“It’s just the perfect storm,” she said. “It’s the economy and recession. It’s 10 years of non-investing in schools. It’s raising property taxes for families and going out for referendums. It’s teachers who are feeling the pressures of No Child Left Behind and over-testing. It’s just a number of things.”

But the seven-point plan is ultimately a step in the right direction, Cassellius said.

“It’s like the (late Minnesota Sen.) Paul Wellstone said: ‘We all do better when we all do better,'” she said. “And it’s really true. Minnesotans have always had that value, whether you’re Republican or Democrat.”

The seven-point plan includes:

Funding education for the future

Better Early Childhood Education

Raise the bar – close the gap

Reading well by third grade

Support teaching for better schools

Better testing for better results

A Department of Education that provides educational leadership and support

Dayton’s proposed budget includes $240 million for higher education, split evenly for the state grant program, for the University of Minnesota and for the Minnesota Colleges and Universities system.

“This is the biggest investment in higher ed since 1985,” Cassellius said. “For the past two years, we’ve been wanting to change direction. Even in a $5 billion deficit, we set forth the seven-point plan and made some real investments.”

More than $344 million is set to be invested in early childhood to 12th-grade education.

“I believe that the governor’s seven-point plan is a wise investment in the future of Minnesota, both in terms of meeting some of the challenges that are occurring with our changing economies and moving to a knowledge economy,” Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said. “When you look, there’s been research done by the Federal Reserve Bank out of the Twin Cities that says investing in early childhood education and kindergarten education can return between a 10-16 percent economic return of value. So it’s a wise investment on the part of the state as we look at how we can make a difference economically, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well.”

Cassellius agreed, noting that some people believe that those academic benefits fade out.

“They don’t fade out in terms of the long term,” she said. “Those kids are less likely to rely on welfare, less likely to be unemployed, more likely to have stable families, more likely to have a high-earning job and more likely to graduate. So those investments really do pay off. You just can’t measure it all right then and there.”

Dayton’s budget includes $44 million for early childhood scholarships, which is expected to allow 10,000 more children attend high quality child care and preschool, and $40 million for schools to offer all-day kindergarten free of charge.

“Early childhood education cannot be stressed enough,” said Dan Deitte, Minneota superintendent. “We’ve had all-day kindergarten here for at least eight to 10 years and so have most of the school districts in the area. But it’s the opposite when you go to the Twin Cities. They charge for the second half of the day.”

Minneota has a 41 percent free and reduced lunch population, Deitte said, so it would be very difficult to ask parents to pay extra for the educational hours. He also pointed out that schools only receive funding of .62 percent for each student and that each district is then responsible for the remaining .38 percent.

“I really hope we do see something invested in early childhood education and all-day kindergarten,” he said. “A lot of research shows the benefits of educating the kids early, and if you don’t get them reading by third-grade, it’s hard to ever do that.”

Willert was also encouraged by what he saw with the reading component, the statewide literacy campaign.

“It’s critical because reading is, first and foremost, a skill that’s essential to be a life-long learner,” he said. “As we look at what’s going on in today’s world, it’s essential that people are equipped with the skills to be life-long learners and obviously, reading is a fundamental component of that.”

Cassellius reported that the third-grade literacy push last year resulted in a “huge bump” in the state’s literacy rates. This year, however, the pot of money that the state is dangling in front of school district is split.

“We take two-thirds of the money and put it on third grade and one-third of the money on graduation rate because we think that we also have to make sure our students are college-ready and that they’re reading well once they leave school,” Cassellius said. “It doesn’t make any good sense that you get them reading at third grade, but then you don’t get them graduated. We want every kid crossing that finish line.”

Educators also want to continue raising the bar while closing the achievement gap. Minnesota currently has one of the largest gaps in achievement between economically disadvantaged students and students of color from less disadvantaged students.

“We are becoming so much more diverse in Minnesota,” Cassellius said. “We have higher poverty, with 42. 5 percent of our first-grade students right now receiving either free or reduced price lunch. If people knew that and understood what that means, I think that they’d be supportive.”

Deitte said he hopes that Minneota will continue receiving integration funding to help reduce the achievement gap.

“We have a program and a success coach that are funded with integration money,” he said. “Our success coach works with kids who are struggling, which are not always minority students. There’s a focus on different groups of kids. I would hate to lose that program.”

Dayton’s vision also includes making improvements to special education funding in the form of $125 million.

“You probably understand the unfunded cost of special ed and the burden it places on other kids in the district,” Cassellius said. “You either have higher class sizes, teachers foregoing raises or you have cut advanced placement classes, athletics, music or art because the money has to come from somewhere.”

Districts are required to fulfill obligations to educate students with disabilities, but it does get quite expensive.

“It’s a credit to Minnesota that our requirements here are far and above what the federal ones are,” Deitte said. “Some people say that’s good, that we’re a leader, but it’s also a concern. We set the bar high for special education. That’s not bad, but we also have to realize that there has to be funding to follow that.”

Receiving the money that they have coming has been a huge step in the right direction, Deitte said, pointing out that schools often suffer when they are required to do more with less money.

“It’s a positive that the state has gotten the IOUs paid back,” Deitte said. “They didn’t give us any new money, but they gave us what we were owed so schools didn’t have to go borrow money. Our funding hasn’t kept up with inflation, though, so schools have had to rely on operating referendums, and that puts tax burdens on the community.”

Cassellius said that Dayton intends to add new money for funding every year he’s governor, with “no exceptions, no excuses,” she said. “He thinks with the current mechanism for paying back has proven to be effective, so over the past three forecasts, we’ve paid back portions of the shift to where, instead of $2.7 billion, we now only owe $800 million. So we are in good shape. It feels great.”

After a decade of having real cuts, educators are optimistic that legislative leaders will also be supportive.

“I support and endorse many of the things that the governor has put forward in his seven-point plan and just look forward to seeing how we can work with the Department of Education to implement those components and pieces into the MPS system,” Willert said.

Money is always the key in being able to continue offering quality programs for the students, Deitte said, but he sees Dayton’s plans as a positive step in the right direction.

“We’re going to have to re-invent ourselves as a top nation in our schools, and the things we did in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, we probably aren’t going to be able to do anymore,” Deitte said. “We have to work together and embrace technology. But we do need the resources to do that.”