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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Pawlenty Talking Out of School

October 08, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Last Friday, October 1, Governor Tim Pawlenty boldly went where many radio and television program hosts go regularly. He spent twenty minutes discussing a documentary film that he hadn't seen. Pawlenty used the opportunity to pitch conservative public education policy initiatives, citing a movie he hadn't seen, as proof that Minnesotans should stay the disastrous conservative educational policy course.

As of last Friday morning, Pawlenty hadn't caught the new documentary film, "Waiting for 'Superman."  He confessed this on his weekly WCCO-AM radio broadcast, "Good Morning, Minnesota," before launching into twenty minutes on the film's meaning and impact, buttressed by conservative Heritage Foundation policy advocate Jennifer Marshall who has seen the movie.

Pawlenty is a vigorous critic of traditional public schools and organized teachers. He favors charter schools, vouchers and proposals that inject marketplace competition into schooling. During his tenure as governor, Minnesota decreased state contributions to school districts an inflation-adjusted 14%. Most recently, Pawlenty's administration, covering a state cash flow shortage, withheld $142 million in transfer payments to 134 of Minnesota's 337 school districts.

During his radio show, Governor Pawlenty works hard at appearing to be a genial host. He kept returning to a discussion about the best hamburger in Minnesota while dashing in and out of attacks on federal health care reform. Don't be fooled. Governor Pawlenty, despite his run-of-the-mill radio skills, is an exceptionally smart guy. He knows, very well, what he's doing when he runs down federal programs or extols a film he's never seen.

Pawlenty, for example, is fond of repeatedly insisting that Minnesota is one of the highest taxed states in the country. Once upon a time, this was true but no longer. Where we used to be a high tax, high service state, compared with others, Minnesota is now a middle tax, middling service state. That change never stops the governor or his conservative allies from repeating the "Minnesota government is out of control" chant.

Minnesota is out of control, just not in the fashion that Governor Pawlenty asserts. Minnesota is falling backwards. School quality is sliding. Health care costs continue spiraling up. Road maintenance is falling far behind road degradation. And, Minnesota's economic development efforts fall somewhere between nonexistent and minimal.

The conservative policy solution is cost shifting, easing public service burdens from the state and its progressive taxation capacity to communities that rely on highly regressive revenue generation mechanisms -property taxes- to maintain public safety, educate families and service transportation infrastructure. Who gains from conservative policy efforts? High income earners. Who loses? The rest of us.

Now, to be fair, I haven't seen "Waiting for 'Superman'" either. Of course, I'm not using a movie I haven't seen to advocate for dubious educational policy solutions, but its fun finding that Governor Pawlenty and I have something in common. That rarely happens.

The list of things that I haven't done is considerable longer than my accomplishments. I've started but haven't completed, for example, James Joyce's "Ulysses". It's a tough book due to Joyce's use of shifting perspective and narrative, all with minimal punctuation. Reading "Ulysses" is a lot like listening to the conversation inside someone's head, which is what Joyce was after.

Pawlenty, on the other hand, seems to disregard that internal communication, the one informed by his life experience. Last Friday, working hard to ease past decades of economic, sociological and educational research positively correlating poverty and low family income with educational underperformance, Pawlenty subtly suggested that traditional schools are the sole source of educational underperformance.

"We know that children from concentrated areas of socio-economic disadvantage, on average, don't do as well," Pawlenty said. "But that kind of implies that just because they don't have the same kind of economic resources that somehow they might not be able to learn. That's false. All children can learn." *

Did you catch that? By insisting on every child's learning potential as the overarching educational policy element, program funding to counteract and overcome poverty's debilitating cost is marginalized. That in turn advances Pawlenty's policy argument for defunding public schools. In other words, because children are natural, highly efficient learners, schools don't need much money; they just have to stay out of the way.

Schooling doesn't, of course, work like that. Learning, as children grow, requires real work, structure and investment. No one understands this better than Governor Pawlenty but his internal conversation is boxed in by his conservative ideological precepts. Lowering tax rates on Minnesota's highest income earners, in the conservative public policy world, is more important than anything else.  A film might artfully tell the same story but it's one that Minnesota families have been struggling with since 2003.

* "Good Morning, Minnesota," WCCO-AM radio, broadcast on October 1, 2010. Accessed from archive on October 7, 2010. Quote occurs at time marker 28:30.

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