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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Education Retreat

October 19, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota offers a different, broader schooling path than is typically found around the world. We’ve prioritized educational access and embraced school choice, from K-12 to higher education. Our way is unique and successful. And, we’re at risk of losing it.

Minnesota’s approach to schooling fits squarely in the American tradition. Minnesota’s 19th century founding fathers wrote education’s centrality into Minnesota’s constitution. Article XIII states that, “it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools” and to fund them.

Over the past ten years, however, Minnesota has reversed course, pulling back on state K-12 investment. This funding shift, adjusted for inflation, reveals a disturbing and determinedly downward trend. Ideologically rigid conservative state tax policy, we observe, trumps addressing the funding decline. Consequently, school districts are left with two choices. To make up for the lost state revenue, they can raise property taxes or cut programs and budgets. It’s really not a choice at all since school boards voted to do both. A third, unspoken choice, implemented after that first two, is to accept defeat and quietly lower educational expectations while reducing access and service.

Minnesota’s educational investments are not, as conservative policymakers would have us believe, luxuries. They are profoundly important and sensible investments in Minnesota’s future. Schools produce, simultaneously, good citizens and a productive workforce. Lower investment, accumulating over time, undermines both achievements, delivering a lesser, hollow version of both.

A quick glance around the world reveals alternatives to Minnesota’s educational model. Every school system reflects its national values, traditions and prejudices. Even among countries with strong schools, there are components that Minnesota wouldn’t choose because we value local control and school choice as essential elements in our democracy. But if the Minnesota’s declining funding pattern continues, we will start looking less like ourselves and more like something unrecognizable.

France maintains a strong national hand in its local schools, a result of old fights between the state and the Catholic Church over school control. Performance on a final, cumulative, end of school exam determines access to higher education. Consequently, exam prep strongly colors the French high school experience, both during and after school hours.

England used to formally “track” students although it has largely reversed course on that approach. Students were separated according to academic ability at age 11 and then channeled into schools that determined future access to higher education. Most students, as a consequence, were not prepared for university study but were eased out of the school system between ages 14 and 18. Germany continues to use a more nuanced version of this method, directing students into one of five types of secondary schools. Most do not lead to a college degree.

China’s Confucian tradition creates a public education system that stresses rote-learning in state-run, state-funded schools through the Ministry of Education. Memorizing material, Chinese educators believe, prepares students for University entry exams. China relies heavily on qualifying exams in many areas of schooling and training. Those who pass, move forward. Those who fail, do not. Most students fail.

India’s schooling system organization combines national and local oversight with national and local funding. Despite a schooling-favorable tradition, India struggles with a persistent 25% illiteracy rate. Social and cultural complexities, linked to India’s rigid class/caste system, create formidable barriers to high quality, accessible higher education. Great Britain’s colonial rule systemically undermined Indian educational traditions, complicating modern education’s expansion and popular embrace.

These are only several examples of global educational systems but they reveal the reliance on exams and academic tracking to restrict higher education access. Rather than casting education’s net far and wide, schooling resources accrue to an increasingly small pool of recipients.

Minnesota schooling doesn’t stop at 14 or 18 or even 22. Life-long school access and engagement is the new normal as workforce needs rapidly change. The conservative tax and educational policy undergirding school funding diminishes education’s transformational impact, grows destabilizing wealth disparity, and limits opportunity. No societal good comes from reducing investment in schools and learning, yet that’s exactly our path.

Progressively fewer financial resources mean fewer teachers, larger class size, fewer school and curricular choices, and declining workforce quality. It doesn’t really matter, at some point, whether the vehicle is tracking or a massive advancement test barrier; lowering quality and raising access barriers hurts kids, families and communities.

It’s time to stop pretending. We’re on the wrong path. Minnesota’s growth and broad prosperity is at stake. Strong schools, choice and access make Minnesota great. Let’s change our policy path and make education a priority, not a whipping post.

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