Education priorities spelled out across districts

What are the top recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature from superintendents, charter public school directors and other leaders?  More than 90 percent of 51 leaders responded when I contacted them recently. They have clear, strong suggestions about the most important steps the Legislature can take to help students and schools.

Of the 48 responders, more than two-thirds cited a combination of increasing overall unrestricted funding and support for recommendations from the statewide school funding task force that will present its findings to the Legislature. As the column is being written, Gov. Dayton has not commented on the task force recommendations.

Charles Blesener, director of Community Engagement in Elk River schools, explained, “Our top priority for the ’13 legislative session is increased funding (general revenue), and corrections of funding inequities evident in the state and metro area. Receiving metro equity revenue, increased compensatory revenue and a one-time transfer of debt redemption funds to the general fund are all on our ‘to do’ list!”

Vanessta Spark, director of Spectrum (charter) High School in Elk River told me, “We would like to see the levy portion of operating referendums, which currently go to the district schools, go instead to charter schools for their students. We support the current Education Task Force finance reform recommendations which provide charter schools with the same amount of revenue increases as district schools would receive.”

After suggesting additional funds and greater equity among districts, the next most frequently cited recommendation was more funding specifically for early childhood education. Fifteen superintendents-charter school directors and Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota cited this as a top priority. Some suggested greater funding for programs involving 3- and 4-year-olds. Nine specifically suggested support for all-day, everyday kindergarten.

For example, Lisa Hendricks, director of Partnership Academy in Richfield believes, “In order to eliminate the staggering Achievement Gap we have in Minnesota we need to start making Pre-K a priority.” Along with more state funding overall, Dooher urged making “targeted investments to close the achievement gap, such as by making all-day kindergarten available to every child.”

Education leaders mentioned several other priorities. These include greater funding dedicated to special education, no more unfunded mandates, repaying the money already owed to public schools and greater flexibility.

Curt Johnson, formerly a Minnesota community college president and long-time reformer now working with Education Evolving, wrote that the group’s top priority is to “allow charter school authorizers, as well as school district boards, to designate a limited number of departments or whole schools for participation in an ‘innovation zone.’ Schools, or parts of schools, so designated would be essentially deregulated, would be encouraged to try new and different ways of achieving success with students, and judged only on the results they get.” A number of superintendents suggested greater flexibility in how they can spend funds that the state provides.

The more than 90 percent response rate shows that what the Legislature does matters a great deal. Upcoming columns will focus on several of these suggestions. Final legislative decisions are several months away, so concerned readers can share their views with legislators.— Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected])