By Vernae Hasbargen
It’s been 12 years, an entire generation of K-12 students, since pro wrestler Jesse Ventura became Governor and reshaped K-12 with what he called, “The Big Plan.”
While well-intentioned, The Big Plan gave sole responsibility for funding schools to the state by eliminating the long-standing Minnesota Miracle, which shared education cost between the state and local property taxpayers.
In 2001 after a summer of wrangling with Ventura, legislators refused to replace the $1 billion property tax cuts with a broader sales tax as he wanted. They chose instead to pay the cost with future budget surpluses, but Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe warned at the time, “This [the takeover] is a luxury we can’t afford.”
Moe was right. The economy slowed and the takeover led to over a decade of rolling state deficits; districts coping with deeper cuts; and property taxpayers paying more of the bill as legislators refused to increase state taxes.
The more troubling outcome was a larger and larger gap in student funding across the state as some districts passed referenda and others didn’t.
From “Black Hole”
Ventura’s bigger legacy might have been labeling education a “Black Hole” and creating the image of a system which sucks up endless money.
His words reverberated in a public already feeling less confident in public education and changing demographically, so that fewer people had children in school and more of those children were new, having immigrated to Minnesota from every corner of the world.
To “The World’s Best Workforce”
This year another wrestler entered the ring and along with his colleagues, reframed that picture, creating an image that might be as dramatic and long-lasting as Ventura’s.
From the minute he stepped into the K-12 chair, Paul Marquart, a wrestling coach at DGF, challenged legislators to think bigger. He knew the days of putting more money on the formula without an expectation of results were over. With 40 percent of the state budget going to education, taxpayers wanted a better return on their investment.
Marquart also believed education is the best tool Minnesota has to stay on top, but he was realistic about the problem, “When the graduation rate for students of color is half that of whites, you have a big problem and the single biggest threat to our economy in the future.”
So Marquart reframed the debate. This year wasn’t about black holes, but investment in our future workforce and he laid out three major goals: 100 percent of Minnesota’s children will…
- Be ready to learn when they enter school by 2020
- Be able to read by third grade by 2020
- Graduate from high school ready for career or college by 2027
How to Get There
Marquart faced tough opponents in a worried business community, a polarized political environment, and skeptical education groups.
As he wrestled with the politics of pushing these ambitious goals, he was joined by key players Commissioner Brenda Cassilius, Policy Chair Carlos Mariani, and many of his colleagues like Kathy Brynaert, an expert in student testing. Together they built momentum for their “Big Plan” around creating what has been called “the world’s best workforce.”
Strategies for creating “The World’s Best Workforce” include:
- Every district will develop their own plan for closing the gap;
- Progress will be publicly reported to taxpayers and the MDE every year;
- After three years, MDE can redirect 2% of the district’s revenue to more successful strategies if progress is not made;
- New Regional Centers of Excellence will train, coach, and support districts.
Undergirding this plan are early learning scholarships for preschool children as well as All Day K. This should put the state on track to reach the 2020 goal of all children being ready to learn.
Also essential to the plan is a new testing policy developed by Cassilius, Brynaert and others. It eliminates the high-stakes GRAD test required to graduate and replace it with tests that help students identify not only their academic progress but also their career interests.
Senate tax bill completes picture
In the end, the big story of this legislative session will be what the Senate contributed to the new frame.
Tax Chair Rod Skoe, along with Senator LeRoy Stumpf, fixed the fiscal problems leftover from Ventura’s Big Plan by creating a smaller version of the Minnesota Miracle’s statewide levy to restore a small amount of funding stability. They also dramatically equalized referenda levies, making them much fairer to students and taxpayers across the state.
Together the House and Senate crafted E-12/Tax bills that are indeed a “Big Plan” benefiting students in every corner of Minnesota.
We’ve come a long way.