Elk River, other school leaders prescribe presidential priorities

What should the top educational priority be for Congress and the Obama administration? Twenty-six Minnesota education leaders responded when I asked them recently. Their responses fell into several major areas.

Mark Bezek, Elk River superintendent, told me, “Just think how much more we could do for students if we could ‘just’ focus on content and educational delivery instead of having our people figuring out ways to fund these programs. Stop using our kids as a political football.”

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin superintendent, spoke for many when he wrote, “We need a bipartisan approach to address Special Education funding. The Anoka-Hennepin school district is now subsidizing special education services to students using $31 million annually from our general fund. We support wholeheartedly the services to our special education students, but it should not come at a cost to our other students. State and Federal mandates should be adequately funded or the statute intent is not genuine.”

Eden Prairie Superintendent Curt Tryggestad agreed that the federal Special Education funding should be a top priority.

According to the non-partisan publication Education Week, Congress promised to pay approximately 40 percent of the cost of special education costs when the initial federal law was passed in 1975. But current federal spending is about 16 percent of the costs. Providing 40 percent would involve going from about $11.5 billion to about $35.3 billion. Legislation that would do this by 2021 was introduced earlier this year. But it did not pass.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, agreed and added to these priorities. He wrote: “My top priority for the next president is to stop treating federal education policy like a political football and bring some stability to our schools. That starts with closing the Pell Grant shortfall once and for all, actually honoring the federal government’s promise to pay for special education in the states and replacing No Child Left Behind with a new law that creates sensible accountability while preserving flexibility at the state and local levels.”

Jason Ulbrich, executive director of Eagle Ridge Charter, Eden Prairie wrote, “My No. 1 priority in education for the next President … is to encourage high performing schools to share best practices and reproduce. This would include providing promised funding on time and to give flexibility in utilizing federal monies.”

Finally, Cam Hedlund of the Lakes International Charter in Forest Lake, spoke for many district and charter leaders: “Please move away from standardized test scores as the sole measure of a school’s success. Please insist that states measure school success by how well educators meet the needs of the whole child, by how well they help students become well-rounded world citizens, by how well they help students maintain physical and emotional well-being and balance and by how much students come to love learning and maintain a sense of inquiry throughout their lives.”

Our taxes have paid for development of new assessments that are supposed to give a broader, more complete view of student progress. Standardized tests measure some, but not all important things we want students to learn.

It may be naïve to think that Congress and the president will agree on most, or even all of these suggestions. But I think it’s a good list. I hope legislators are listening and learning from these folks. — Joe Nathan, Center for School Change (Reactions welcome at [email protected])