Pawlenty's Education Switcheroo

City Pages photo illustration

There was a whiff of The Wizard of Oz at the State Capitol early last week, during a press conference called by Governor Tim Pawlenty to announce his package of education proposals for the upcoming legislative session. Surrounded by a dozen or so castle sentries from the Republican caucus, and with Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke (who is fast earning a reputation as the Wicked Witch of the West) by his side, Pawlenty, with Wizard-like hubris, trumpeted his blizzard of new initiatives as a yellow-brick road toward restoring Minnesota's position as a national innovator in education policy. With each succeeding proposal, however, one longed to pull back the curtain and reveal the little tax-denying, budget-cutting man who has slashed and burned substantive programs and helped bury legislative initiatives in many of the areas he now claims to champion.

On a large placard to Pawlenty's right was an oversized replica of the Governor's Seal of Honor, one of three proposed certificates (the others being the Governor's Seal of Advanced Honor and the Governor's Scholars of Distinction) designed to provide students with an incentive to achieve and to reward the gifted and talented for their performance. "We cannot forget the students at the top," Yecke emphasized. But this noble rhetoric is rebutted by what the Wiz was doing in 1998, when the state budget was flush and Pawlenty was majority leader in the senate.

"One of the first things he and the Republicans did when they came to power was cut dedicated funding for gifted and talented students," remembers House minority leader Matt Entenza (DFL-St. Paul). And again, during the most recent session, House DFLers proposed a bill that would have allotted $10 million in funding for gifted and talented students, but the Republican majority wouldn't even allow it to be heard on the floor. "It would have tried to meet their needs by including more challenging schoolwork, rather than simply piling more of it on," says Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), the lead Democrat on the House K-12 Finance Committee. "Instead the governor is proposing these seals and encouraging the Chambers [of Commerce] to have dinners with these students. I find it very insulting to them."

The lead item in Pawlenty's press release last week was his one-year, $4.5 million proposal to provide "internet access equity" to help defray the heightened cost of getting rural districts online. But it was just last year that the Wiz and his legislative cohorts eliminated nearly $20 million in ongoing annual funding for technology access grants to schools throughout the state.

When you look beyond Pawlenty's proposal to expand charter school opportunities in Minnesota, which would include the creation of DOE-sponsored English Immersion Schools for Immigrants, you find a similar contradiction. Last year, the Wiz axed more than $10 million from the state budget by capping the Limited English Language program for immigrants at five years, despite research showing that many immigrant students require up to seven years for English fluency. The English immersion charters could easily be a more expensive, and currently unproven, remedy that would have the additional effect of segregating children new to this country.

Another element of the charter school plan would have the DOE set up three "super schools"--one each in an urban, suburban, and rural location--where the "super teachers" Pawlenty proposes paying up to $100,000 a year would work. Along with his "teacher recruitment" proposal for placing qualified teachers in mostly rural areas, this would ostensibly give schools more flexibility to elide union constraints in order to attract and retain the best educators. Yet during the last legislative session, the Wiz doinked a DFL Senate proposal that would have allocated $50 million so that nearly a third of the state's neediest districts could mitigate the union's steps-and-lanes and seniority system for teacher promotion and placement. "This would have put real money into expanding a program started by the Ventura administration, and would have had a much broader impact on retaining good, especially younger, teachers," says Steve Kelley, chair of the Senate's Education Committee. "Pawlenty wants to add something like $2 to $4 million for a handful of schools. This would have affected 30 or 40 districts."

To further unleash the forces of innovation, the governor also proposes that charter school sponsors be able to bypass local school boards and receive authorization to operate directly from the state. (Currently, the DOE can grant approval only if a sponsor appeals a decision from the local board to deny their application.) Pawlenty also wants to do away with the requirement that sponsors have a $2 million fund for operating costs in place (he mistakenly referred to it as a "$2 million bond" at the press conference) to ensure their financial viability. But the legislature instituted the $2 million requirement in response to a series of spectacular charter school swindles or mismanagements that in some cases enriched charter school operatives and left students high and dry in the middle of the academic year. Apparently the financial accountability the Wiz demands of professional education administrators doesn't apply to charter school founders.

"Minnesota has a proud tradition of leading the nation in innovation through charter schools," Pawlenty says. "Today's initiatives will help us regain that leadership and momentum." But the state's innovative tradition in education, most prominently displayed during the Rudy Perpich administration, has always been accompanied by robust increases in education funding. After promising that education would be "held harmless" during the last session, the Wiz hacked $185 million out of the education budget--the first real dollar cuts to education in modern state history--and deferred another $437 million in aid payments, which has forced school districts to borrow money to make ends meet. As a result, thousands of teachers across the state have been laid off.

At his press conference, the governor allowed that while there might be "some correlation" between money and performance in the schools, he believed that the connection was "fairly fuzzy." Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, whose membership is mostly awash in red ink, disagrees. "There is proven research that some programs enhance student achievement and help reduce the gap in student achievement, such as all-day kindergarten, early childhood family education, gifted and talented programs, among others. And we're not funding them."

Behind the lofty rhetoric, the "super schools," and the dime-store seals of honor, the most potentially substantive proposal in Pawlenty's package lies at the bottom of his press release--giving the state the power to "reconstitute underperforming districts." Asked what circumstances might trigger a state takeover of a district from the duly elected representatives of the local school board, and what shape a reconstituted district might take, Yecke said the DOE would come up with "our own definition" that "could have a number of pieces," including changing the structure to emphasize charter schools, imposing more professional development on teachers, and changing the curriculum to be more in line with state education standards. Both Yecke and Pawlenty claimed that such measures were required under the provisions of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act that Yecke helped create during her time in Washington. But a state takeover of districts is merely a suggested corrective, not a mandate, of NCLB.

Pawlenty's takeover proposal lends some unfortunate irony to Croonquist's assertion that "we have a whole new set of expectations under No Child Left Behind coming at the same time funding of education is being cut. Those dynamics are meeting head-on and causing real challenges in our schools." But the Yecke quote in the release handed out at last week's press conference is beyond irony: "I am particularly excited about the degree of flexibility these proposals will give to local schools." Behind his curtain, the Wiz must have chuckled at that canard.

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