Craig Roen: Schooling the next governor on education

/ 19 September 2010 / Parents United

Craig M. Roen, Star Tribune, September 19, 2010 –

We need to find stable funding and look to experts no matter their politics.

In 20 years, will Minnesota’s public school system be among the best in the world, or will it be an also-ran? In 20 years, will Minnesota’s next governor be remembered as a courageous visionary, or as a partisan who presided over the decline of our highly educated workforce?

Make no mistake: We are at a historic crossroads. The Minnesota Miracle, with its legacy of a world-class public school system and workforce, is on its way to becoming part of a bygone era. The world is ever more competitive, and a well-educated workforce is our only assurance that Minnesota will prosper in the future. Bumper-sticker slogans and rigid ideologies are no substitute for a well-informed and well-thought-out set of education policies. The next governor must rise above petty politics and the “reform du jour” in order to lead the state to higher ground.

Minnesota is the only state that has neither an elected statewide board of education nor an elected education commissioner. Therefore, enormous power resides with the governor to shape and drive education policy. With so much power that affects every citizen in the state, and particularly our children and their futures, the governor has a duty to act wisely.

We believe that Minnesota’s public school system urgently needs the next governor to drive two major changes: one related to funding, and the other related to how education policy is made.

First, he must spearhead reform of our tax structure in order to provide public schools with a stable, adequate source of funding. The current structure pushes too much of the responsibility for funding schools onto local governments and local levies. This has, in turn, led to an unstable and inequitable system that leaves many districts underfunded and unable to plan for the future.

We all know that Minnesota faces tough economic times. However, our kids can’t put their educations on hold while we wait for the economy to improve. Continuing to shortchange public education, which has been losing funding consistently for years, is penny-wise and dollar-foolish. The students of today will be part of the workforce of tomorrow. It is axiomatic that those with the best educations tend to get the highest-paying jobs — jobs that should stay in Minnesota.

Second, the next governor must lead us into a postpartisan era of education policymaking. Rather than pointing fingers at scapegoats or leaping at whatever reform initiative is in vogue, the next governor should seek out and rely upon the advice of the best experts in the field of education, wherever they may be found. Sound education policy is not based upon ideology. It is the result of evidence-based research and of the experience of the best educators. We know, for instance, that early childhood education and increased learning time are two fundamental factors in improving education outcomes. Testing has become an obsession at the expense of sound curriculum development, which has also proven to be a key factor in education outcomes.

With this in mind, we support the creation of a statewide clearinghouse for education research. This entity would be an independent, nonpartisan, academically based organization that would vet existing and proposed education policies — one that would rely on evidence-based research for determining what is working in our public education system and what is not. It could assist our political leaders to make sense of the often contradictory research and data surrounding public education. It could also be a resource for individual school districts that must innovate to meet the challenges of offering a world-class education to an ever-more-diverse population of learners.

This research center would provide real-time guidance to political leaders and school administrators on everything from teacher evaluations to curricula to closing the achievement gap. And it would be transparent: All of our leaders and education administrators would have unfettered access to the research and results generated by the center. It would go a long way toward taking the politics out of education policymaking, which is something we badly need.

The next governor is the only one who can do this. We need it; our kids deserve it, and in 20 years, we will look back and see the wisdom of it.

Craig M. Roen is board president of Parents United for Public Schools, a statewide, grass-roots organization.