Urban education overlooked in gubernatorial debate

Attendees say candidates missed the mark in tackling MN’s achievement gap

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Gubernatorial candidates (from left to right) Tom Horner (Independence Party), Tom Emmer (GOP) and Mark Dayton (DFL) addressed education issues in Minnesota on September 23 with moderator Cathy Wurzer. Photo: Bruce Silcox Photography

The three main Minnesota gubernatorial candidates previously unveiled their education plans.

Tom Emmer (Republican Party) wants to hold K-12 to its current funding, Mark Dayton (Democratic Party) wants all-day kindergarten and to cut classroom sizes, and Tom Horner (Independence Party) said he would fund the projected budget increases for education, but he, along with Emmer, would delay paying back the shifted school payments.

Minnesota has one of the worst racial achievement gaps in the U.S., and each candidate was asked by moderator Cathy Wurzer during a September 23 one-hour free-flowing debate how they would address it at Twin Cities Public Television’s studios in downtown St. Paul before an invitation-only audience.

Horner said that No Child Left Behind has helped bring this problem to light. “We have to look at how we restructure schools,” he added.

Emmer called the achievement gap “the greatest tragedy” and said he would create “empowerment zones” in both Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts to help close the gaps.

Funding full-day kindergarten would help close the achievement gap as well, claims Dayton. “We are under-funding public school education,” he added.

The MSR interviewed several persons who attended last week’s debate. Most expressed concern that none of the candidates really addressed the issues of what currently affects urban education, such as properly funding it.

“It is a very tough issue and challenging. It is hard to figure out how we are going to address this issue, and how to deal with it. They didn’t address it,” said Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson on addressing the achievement gap issue.

“It’s clear that all three are committed to education, and they all said that they are committed to closing the achievement gap. I haven’t heard yet from them what are their clear measurable, achievable goals; what are the numbers that [each candidate] would like to show us on how the achievement gap has been closed,” said Teach for America Minnesota Executive Director Daniel Sellers.

Minneapolis School Board Member Chris Stewart said, “I don’t think any of the candidates have any idea about how to close the achievement gap.”

“This is a crisis, and we need to address it,” added Matthea Little Smith, Minneapolis.

“They really didn’t talk about specifics as far as narrowing the education gap, and I am really concerned about that. They were pretty general.”

“The achievement gap conversation is a conversation in itself,” noted Caroline Smallwood, Minnetonka.

“I don’t think any Minnesota elected official wants to touch urban education,” surmised Stewart. “It is politically smart for them to locate all of their focus on rural areas and outside of Minneapolis because they absolutely have no ideas on how to address the problems that we have in urban education.”

“[The three candidates] aren’t talking to urban superintendents. I’ve called them and said, ‘I like to meet each one of you to hear your position on education, and see how you will be able to support the work that we are doing in our districts,’ and I haven’t gotten a return call yet,” admitted Johnson.

“I would like to see the three candidates go deeper in the African American and [Latino] communities, and hear where they are coming from, and try to work with them,” community resident Shawn Lewis added. “I don’t think you can’t address [the issues] if you don’t have good relationships working with communities of color.”

“If [the candidates] strictly focus on low-income and minority kids, there won’t be a lot of movement in the state of Minnesota,” believes Smallwood.

The three candidates also discussed other key education issues such as early education. Emmer says he supports early education, but Horner quickly pointed out that he was among several state legislators that voted against education funding bills.

“Government must set some priorities and live within its priorities and can’t spend what it doesn’t have,” explained Emmer.

“I will put money in my budget to make it a priority,” pledged Horner.

Dayton added that “a public-private partnership” might be needed to help fund education in Minnesota. If elected, he says he would immediately meet with education officials and others “and [ask] them to set a budget.”

Johnson said she liked how the candidates seem to want school districts and school administrators to have more autonomy in decision making.

On the alternative teaching licensing issue, which would bring people without teaching degrees into classrooms, “I’m appreciate that Rep. Emmer is supportive [but] we didn’t get a chance to hear Tom Horner. I would like to have heard his stance. I thought Sen. Dayton expressed the understanding that having alternative licensing is important, and also the importance of having the right people in the classrooms,” said Sellers, whose organization, Teach for America, places new college graduates in schools as teachers.

“We do have a shortage” in math and science teachers, said Emmer, who supports alternative licensing. Both Horner and Dayton said the new governor must work with Education Minnesota, the state teachers union that currently opposes it.

“I do believe [the other two candidates’] commitment to education, [but] this is about recognizing what resources are available [to fund it],” said Emmer in his closing comments.

“My priority will be education,” said Dayton.

“Leadership and political will” is needed to ensure that education issues receive proper attention, said Horner. “It’s the status quo that’s not working. We need to be bold.”

Smallwood said the one-hour time format “was too short for them to get into real in depth on [education]. I think Tom Horner seems to hone in on a couple of key issues such as early education. [He proposed] that number one, the leadership and the will must come from the top and the community. On the other hand, Emmer talked about what we need to do within budget reserves, and I wanted him to talk more about that.

“As far as Mark Dayton, I think that his statements were good as well, but I wasn’t as clear on what type of direction he was going in at times,” she continued.

“I think you have very clear, distinct choices among the three candidates,” surmised Lewis. He believes that whoever is governor, “It is going to be very hard to invest money in innovations into the educational system. But we do need innovations, and you got to find a way to do some of that and find sources somewhere. I wasn’t wowed by any of the candidates about any new innovations. I was a little disappointed.”

Stewart concluded, “I thought it was an impressive assortment of clichés with no bearing on reality.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.