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Minnesota 2020 Journal: One Step Up, Two Steps Back

November 12, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Bruce Springsteen releases a “new” record next week, drawn from material recorded after 1975’s “Born to Run.” It’s marketed as the record that he probably would’ve released in 1977 if he hadn’t been involved in a lengthy lawsuit stymieing production. When “Darkness on the Edge of Town” came out in 1978, Springsteen was in a different mood. That record reflected his older, more somber perspective.

Like Governor Pawlenty and pretty much everyone around my age, I’m a Bruce Springsteen fan. It’s hard to pick a favorite but, from his late canonical period, I love “Nebraska.” It’s a collection of demos recorded to share with the band that didn’t quite work with the “Born in the USA” anthemic tone.

BitUSA was Springsteen’s great commercial behemoth, delivered by America’s working class hero-son; Nebraska was the deep, dark and brooding perspective of the skinny little kid who didn’t really fit in.

This new release, “The Promise,” captures what could’ve been. It’s like finding an old picture of a girl you dated a few times but didn’t really pursue. Or someone you sorted flirted with that, but for other choices, might have become more. Or not. That’s the point. You’ll never know because you’ll never know.
In another decade or two, Minnesota will reflect on this past decade’s impact on public education, asking a version of the missed opportunity question. What could’ve happened had we embraced a different policy perspective?

The Pawlenty administration, joined, albeit reluctantly, by the Democratic caucuses-controlled State House of Representatives and State Senate, cut school funding by an inflation-adjusted 14%. And, in one of Pawlenty’s final managerial acts, he effectively raided $142 million from reserve funds of 134 of Minnesota’s 337 school districts. With conservative policy pushing the state from one financial crisis to the next, Minnesota was, financially, coming up short. Rather than increase state revenues, it grabbed cash in a piggy bank raid from schools doing the best job making tough budgeting and program decisions while maintaining a state-required reserve fund balance.

Last Tuesday, state legislative Democrats lost control of both chambers even as Minnesota elected a Democratic governor. The public is justifiably frustrated with Minnesota’s policy direction and economic performance. Since Pawlenty wasn’t on the ballot, voters took out their frustration on the only state policymakers running.

Because the executive and legislative branches have flipped control, it’s hard to imagine progressive public policy initiatives moving forward. We’ll experience progressive administration conjoined with conservative legislative action which is to say expect nothing substantially new.

Minnesota faces a nearly $7 billion projected budget deficit. I expect that educational funding will bear another big funding hit. But, at the school district level, there’s no fat to cut. School boards will face a different, difficult challenge akin to sacrificing a limb. Extracurricular activities will be on the line.

That’s all extracurricular activities, not just some. I don’t want to sound alarmist but, school boards have already cut programs, laid off staff, increased class sizes and raised property taxes. The only remaining choice forces the K-12 education community to reshape its expectation of a good education.

In the American educational tradition, we’ve embraced extracurricular activities -sports, German club, yearbook, school newspaper, Future Farmers of America, etc.- as essential and educationally complementary elements. Classroom instruction is an education’s core but academic study alone doesn’t produce citizens prepared to lead, innovate and create.

At least, until now. Tasked with further budget cuts, school boards and administrators will face choosing between football and science instruction; German club and German class; and choir and algebra. Academic subjects will win every time. Eventually, only the property wealthiest school districts will offer extracurricular activities while everyone else struggles to provide an adequate core education.

American education is unique. Most of the world’s schools don’t offer sports teams or student organizations. Sport is entirely privatized through clubs, as is music instruction and similar activities. In America and particularly in Minnesota, we’ve resisted that direction because we believe that a comprehensive and well-rounded education produces a better outcome.

We are the outcome just as we are the investors.

Now, we face a choice. Will Minnesota invest in schools and move forward or will we selfishly turn away, faltering and falling behind? The answer is simple: stop cutting school budgets and start investing. Opportunity, created by strong public schools doesn’t guarantee success but, once lost, opportunity is difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

Conservative “no new taxes” policy has failed Minnesota. Let’s move forward with a balanced approach, raising revenue and cutting budgets. Let’s focus on what really matters: schools, health care, jobs and infrastructure. Let’s not find ourselves in ten or twenty years, pining over the path not taken.

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