(The following appeared in the March 6th edition of the Star Tribune)
The past few weeks saw seemingly conflicting news about the state of Minnesota’s schools. On the one hand, we heard that Minnesota’s graduation rate has risen for four straight years for all students to 81.7 percent — the highest since rigorous education standards were adopted last decade. Moreover, the gap between white and students of color continues to narrow at a faster pace than the overall rise in four-year graduation rates.
On the other hand, we heard that Minnesota’s “opportunity and achievement gap” remains the worst in the nation and that our schools are failing. On national standardized tests, Minnesota’s students show some of the widest gaps between students of color and white students in the nation. And while in some cases Minnesota’s students of color might outperform their peers in much of the nation, these disparities absolutely still matter. That Minnesota has some of the worst disparities between whites and communities of color in education and employment is no coincidence. Unequal outcomes in education follow children for the rest of their lives. While real improvements are happening, this is a crisis for our state.
So what is to be done? The House Republicans would have us believe that we can answer these big systemic challenges by focusing on teacher layoffs. This week they passed H.F. 2, which blames teacher seniority as the reason for our unequal education outcomes — even though tenured teachers can currently be removed from the classroom if they are not “getting the job done.” Not only is there no law preventing teachers from being removed for poor performance, but in the 2012-13 school year over 350 tenured teachers were removed from the classroom.
H.F. 2 also claims to respond to teaching shortages — a real issue in Greater Minnesota — but House Republicans do this by “waving the white flag.” They propose getting more instructors by lowering standards and having school districts hire “community experts” who do not have licenses to teach. Minnesota students deserve the best — not unlicensed people — and schools should have the resources to hire, train and retain the best.
These solutions are “small ball,” and they have more to do with politics than policy.
Minnesota’s unequal education is an urgent, serious and complex problem. It requires serious and thoughtful solutions — not fake silver bullets.
Last year, we dug deep down into the data to tackle the opportunity and achievement gap. We spent months consulting with experts and crafting legislation to modernize the state’s English Language Learner policies. We spent years crafting the Achievement and Integration for Minnesota program, which directly ties money for schools with closing education disparities. We reformed our student testing law to align it with students’ career and college goals.
We capped off these reforms with “The World’s Best Workforce” — a system of measures and accountability tied to high school graduation, reading accomplishments and closing gaps — so that our schools strive to achieve. High goals must be backed up with the resources to achieve them, and that’s why we provided the funding for all-day kindergarten and early-learning scholarships.
These are the reforms that really push our state’s education to the next level.
While House Republicans pass small ball political goals, our students wait for serious reform.
Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, is a member of the Minnesota House.