My colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, are issuing missives on a variety of topics as we prepare for the 2006 legislative session. Education has received considerable attention. Last week the House Education Policy and Reform Committee announced its list of "reforms" for this session. I have been asked by constituents, including a retired local newspaper editor, to respond.
We hear about "restructuring" education and "accountability." The trick is to transform buzz words into reality. We should not fear change, for the way we teach kids has been constantly evolving since long before the first schools were built. However, we should closely examine change proposed without solid evidence that it will be for the betterment of educating our young.
This session, we will discuss adding five weeks to Minnesota's school year. More school days may likely have merit. What will this cost? Are we willing to pay? If the concern is children being left behind, then let's examine summer school or after school requirements for those who are failing.
One of my Republican legislative friends wrote that money is not the only answer in dealing with education. He commented on how well many rural schools do with lower per capita spending, while some urban schools have much lower test scores despite receiving much more money. I agree. Eden Valley-Watkins is a prime example of a public school system where students achieve notably high test scores and per capita spending is relatively low.
But I'm concerned about what seems to be an underlying message. Can members of the legislature really suggest that less money means higher test scores? Yes, our schools have done a tremendous job. Our national ranking in financial commitment to education has dropped, but our test scores have risen to the top. This is a credit to parents, to educators, and to students. It should tell us that while money is important, it is not the only component of success. But to maintain our high student success rate, we must correspondingly invest our dollars in education.
In fairness, let me note that last year we passed the highest education budget in 17 years. I insisted on withholding my support until that high level was reached in the bill. But the trend in per capita funding has been on the decline. It seems hypocritical to demand excellence as we lower funding levels.
The House Policy and Reform Committee offers many proposals. I have questions about most of them, but I'll just concentrate on a few. First, the "70 Percent Solution" requires that 70 percent of our K-12 dollars be spent in the classroom, which sounds great. We should spend most of our money in the classroom. However, what will this proposal really mean to our students? In reality, not much. Minnesota schools already spend on average about 69 cents of each dollar in the classroom. This proposal does not include counselors and librarians, who certainly impact the classroom. Nor does it take into account emergency capital expenses like repairing a roof, money that would be taken from the classroom total. What about local control? I thought that was an issue important to members.
The simple fact is that most schools in Minnesota that are not currently at 70 percent could quickly reach that goal by just recoding their account books.
Establishing a Math and Science Academy may have merit. But at what cost? In addition to the cost of the facility and operation of the school, what is the cost to the rest of our students? Our students must maintain a high level in math and science so that we can compete globally.
Studies have shown that the quality of teachers and low class size are the most important factors in student success. Our class sizes are increasing. The gap in pay is widening between science and math graduates who become educators, as opposed to those getting hired by the private sector. How much longer can we expect highly qualified people to choose teaching and forsake the money offered them to work elsewhere? Our students will suffer. I hope that if the new academy is established, it will not further diminish our responsibility to Minnesota's other schools. I would rather see incentives offered to our schools to encourage improved local math and science programs to help all students, including the gifted.
I agree that we have community members who can provide valuable insights in the classroom. Yet allowing them to enter the field without education degrees raises some questions. What does this say about the training educators receive in child psychology, methods of teaching and how to generally deal with students? If these courses and others like them are not necessary, then why have teachers been taking them for decades.? If they are necessary, how will they be offered to mid-career professionals?
Certainly, schools should be held accountable for their actions in policy and management. I would offer that one measure of accountability, ACT test scores, gets little mention. Last year, Minnesota students ranked number one in the nation in ACT scores.
Yes, there are problems in education that must be dealt with, and yes, money won't solve every problem. Changes will come as we adapt to a changing world. But we must maintain our commitment to all students as we look to a future that treats our students fairly. We must strengthen the base of our education system, its very foundation, before we go on adding new rooms.