Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

Minnbest is a non-partisan, broad based coalition of parents, educators and school advocacy groups who believe excellent public education is a foundation of democracy in America.


This is not good news

Britt Robson is a good friend of public education, but like all good friends, he is not afraid to tell us the truth.

Schoolz Suck

New numbers show public education in Minnesota trending down, down, down

by Britt Robson

For as far back as most of us can remember, Minnesotans have been smug about their schools--and for palpable reason, since education is invariably cited as a main reason this frozen prairie has fostered one of the nation's most robust state economies. But this long legacy of extraordinary investments in public education has been eroding steadily for more than a decade now.

Front-page headlines in last Thursday's editions of both metro dailies trumpeted the results of a state-by-state comparison of education spending conducted by the national publication Education Week. It revealed that per-student expenditures on education in Minnesota increased just 1.2 percent from 2001 to 2002, far below the national average of 4.9 percent. The state likewise was below the national average in per-pupil spending increases between 1992 and 2002. According to the magazine, that drops Minnesota to 23rd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of money spent to educate each student in 2001-2002 (the latest comparative data available).

If that decidedly mediocre ranking isn't sobering enough, consider that Education Week weighs geographical factors when calibrating a state's education spending. According to the raw numbers from the unweighted Census of Governments website, Minnesota spent $7,691 per student in fiscal year 2002, which is less than the national average of $7,701. The state looks even more penurious when education spending is measured as a percentage of personal income--a relevant comparison, given that you can't hire a teacher in Minnesota for the same amount as in a low-income state such as, say, Mississippi. Again using data from the Census of Governments, Minnesota spent just 3.9 percent of its personal income on elementary and secondary school education, placing it 38th among the 50 states. (The national average is 4.2 percent.)

This declining commitment to education is not some blip to be recouped easily in coming years; it reflects an accelerating trend in the state. During the most recent five-year period for which national data is available, 1997 to 2002, Minnesota's rate of growth in per-pupil spending ranked 45th in the country (46th if D.C. is included), according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. And that statistical snapshot reflects no reckoning with the unprecedented ravages wreaked upon the state's education budget since 2002 by the Pawlenty administration and its slash-and-burn cronies at the Capitol.

Pawlenty has pledged that classroom education would be "held harmless" in the 2004-05 biennial budget. Instead, for the first time in modern state history, fewer dollars--$185 million fewer--were allocated to education than in the previous budget. The damage is exacerbated by the fact that this is occurring at precisely the time when the state has replaced local governments as the primary funding source for schools. Based on the state's November 2004 forecast, and using the "unofficial" inflation index deployed by state economists (for official purposes the state, unlike school administrators, can pretend inflation doesn't exist when confecting its budget), the total amount of E-12 spending in Minnesota will decline by 5.2 percent in 2004-05 compared with the previous biennium. And without various funding shifts--including the passage of local school referenda to help ease the blow--the decline would be 7.1 percent. When you look up Minnesota's per-pupil spending in future state-by-state comparisons, you'll save time by starting at the bottom.

Pawlenty has been at least partially able to obscure his abandonment of public education with tough talk about the need for "accountability." The implication is that he'd be willing to allocate more money if only he could be certain that the money would be well spent. Well, let's see: According to Education Week, while Minnesota ranks 23rd in total dollars spent per pupil, its test scores land up among the top eight states in the nation in math and reading among both fourth- and eighth-graders.

Scrounging for bad news with which to tar schoolteachers and administrators, Pawlenty and his since-deposed commissioner of education, Cheri Pierson Yecke, were always quick to point out the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. And indeed, the Education Week figures show Minnesota with a 34-point gap in the test scores of those demographics, substantially more than the 22-point gap nationally. But it is hard to take the governor's concern seriously when most of the $185 million he hacked from education came from areas of the budget either specifically or disproportionately designed to assist nonwhite students, including compensatory aid, limited English proficiency, special education, after-school programs, summer school, alternative schools, and the teachers of color program. (Although they are not specifically part of the general education budget, you could throw in Early Childhood Family Education programs and Head Start too.)

You can't blame school administrators for suspecting that all this talk about accountability is a demagogic bait and switch, given how the politicians keep changing the standards. "The last big reform they enacted, Profile of Learning, was repealed before it could take effect," says Jim Grathwol, director of government relations for the Minneapolis Public Schools. "Before that it was 'outcome-based education.' Now it's No Child Left Behind. The state says it wants reform. But how we negotiate contracts, who we negotiate with, and how much we have to negotiate with are all set by statute. At some point maybe the strategy should be to let one or two of these reforms stay in place and then try funding them."

Instead, Pawlenty keeps up his political tap dance, throwing out superficial proposals passed off as fundamental reforms. Remember his plan to reward a handful of "superteachers" with $100,000 contracts? Last year he wanted to relax the standards for setting up charter schools; this year his new education commissioner is proposing that the charter school standards be toughened. His latest splash, unveiled at an October press conference, was to promote "value-added" accountability standards (something already being done in Minneapolis) and to endorse some teacher-quality initiatives proposed by the national Teaching Commission comprised of education and business leaders.

Given that Education Week dispensed a D+ to Minnesota for its "efforts to improve teacher quality," some reforms are certainly appropriate. But once again, a few of Pawlenty's proposals are already being implemented at various schools around the state. What is notable about all of them is that they don't commit very much money.

One prominent recommendation by the Teaching Commission given short shrift by the governor is that "base pay [for teachers] needs to be increased to make teaching more competitive with other professions." According to information from the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, using figures from the state and the National Education Association, the average private sector wages in Minnesota increased by 51 percent from 1992 to 2002. Wages for the average government worker during that period increased by 34 percent. But for teachers, wages rose just 28 percent in that span.

It is not an exaggeration to say that our ongoing lack of commitment to public education is jeopardizing the future health of this state. "In 1970, Minnesota was 22nd in the nation in per capita income. In 2002, we were seventh," says Senator Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins), who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "States ahead of us are Connecticut, which is a giant bedroom community for New York City, and Virginia, which has the nation's capital right next door. We haven't had those advantages. We've done it by investing in education."

"We are no longer poised on the threshold of the information economy--we are in it," Grathwol says. "And the winner in that economy is the community that gets the most citizens educated to the point where they can participate in that information economy. It is not a time to withdraw from funding education."


More corruption From Rod Paige

Unable to find credentialed defenders of NCLB, the Administration turns to paid propagandists. That leaves some of the unpaid? propagandists annoyed.

Paige is a corrupt fraud. He was a fraud in Houston, in over his head at the DoE, let others do the writing of the law he supposedly inspired and defends failure by blaming those that have to do the work. There will be many more items that come up after journalists start looking into the DoE under his tenure. There are going to be a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests.

Armstrong Williams' Column Axed by TMS

By Dave Astor

Published: January 07, 2005 8:45 PM ET

NEW YORK Tribune Media Services (TMS) tonight terminated its contract with columnist Armstrong Williams, effective immediately. But Williams told E&P that he plans to continue his feature via self-syndication.

TMS' action came after USA Today reported this morning that Williams had accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind education-reform law on his TV and radio shows. E&P subsequently reported that Williams had also written about NCLB in his newspaper column at least four times last year.

In a statement, TMS said: "[A]ccepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party." (Full text of the statement is available at the end of this story.)

John Twohey, vice president of editorial and operations at TMS, told E&P tonight that terminating the contract "wasn't a close call" after he and four other senior TMS executives discussed the matter.

"I understand the decision," Williams said when reached by E&P. He also said he would not be returning the $240,000.

Williams said the $240,000 in payments were made to promote NCLB as part of an advertising campaign on his syndicated "The Right Side" TV show and that this ad campaign was disclosed to the show's viewers. But he acknowledged that the payments weren't disclosed to other audiences, including readers of his newspaper column. Williams also acknowledged that he mentioned NCLB in some of his 2004 columns, but he said he didn't make NCLB a "centerpiece" in them.

The columnist plans to start trying to self-syndicate his feature this Monday. How many of his nearly 50 newspaper clients does he think will keep the feature? "That remains to be seen," Williams replied. "But I always feel I can sell my product better than anyone else."

He added: "I'm wounded now, but, guess what, wounds heal."

Williams also discussed the matter during an appearance today on CNN's "Crossfire" with Paul Begala and Robert Novak (who has faced ethics questions of his own after outing an undercover CIA agent in his Chicago Sun-Times/Creators Syndicate column).

According to a CNN transcript, Williams said: "This has been a great lesson for me. I apologize. ... I should be criticized, and I crossed some ethical lines. I've learned from this. It will never happen again."

Bryan Monroe, vice president-print for the National Association of Black Journalists and an assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder, said in a statement: "I thought we in media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs." Monroe, speaking before TMS terminated Williams, added that while Williams "has long since abandoned any pretense of being a journalist, his actions still taint those who share the values and ethics of journalism, no matter what color you are."

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress sent President Bush a letter that mentioned the $240,000 payment to Williams. The letter said: "Covert propaganda to influence public opinion is unethical and dangerous."

The full text of the TMS statement:

"Tribune Media Services (TMS) today informed Armstrong Williams that it is terminating its business relationship with him effective immediately. After several conversations with Mr. Williams today in which he acknowledged receipt of $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), TMS exercised its option to discontinue distribution of his weekly newspaper column.

"The fact that Mr. Williams failed to notify TMS of his receipt (through the Ketchum public relations agency) of payments from the DOE is a violation of provisions in his syndication agreement with TMS. The agreement requires him to notify TMS when 'a possible or potential conflict of interest arises due to the subject matter of (his columns) and the social, professional, financial, or business relations of (Mr. Williams).'

"We accept Mr. Williams' explanation that these payments by Ketchum on behalf of DOE were for advertising messages broadcast on his radio and TV shows. Nevertheless, accepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party."

Dave Astor (dastor@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.


Common sense is the best standard

Posted on Fri, Jan. 07, 2005 St Paul Pioneer Press

Assessments need to be standardized

Where would you rather send your kids to school? Minnesota or Mississippi?

The answer to us is obvious, when we look at objective measures on national standardized tests that consistently put Minnesota and Wisconsin at the top of the academic heap and relegate states like Mississippi and Louisiana to the bottom.

So we'll hold off on the hand-wringing over Education Week's "Quality Counts 2005" report, which concludes that public schools in Tennessee and Louisiana have far fewer "underperforming schools" than Minnesota or Wisconsin. It's all in what you measure and how you make the comparisons.

The federal No Child Left Behind act requires all states to establish academic standards and develop its own tests to measure that state's student academic progress.

The phrase "develop its own tests" deserves special consideration. When states are free to craft their own standards and tests, there can be no national standard for education progress. What Minnesota and Wisconsin describe as "underperforming" schools might well be deemed "making adequate yearly progress" elsewhere. Consequently, we'd feel more confident about such state-to-state assessments if standardized benchmarks were used, such as a standardized test, in addition to graduation rates, poverty levels, English language skills and other variables that affect a child's academic progress.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress gives a consistent national perspective on student achievement in math, science and reading. According to the 2003 test scores, Minnesota eighth-graders were the best in the United States in math proficiency, and fourth-graders ranked second in math proficiency.

When the scores of other nations are ranked, Minnesota kids shine again. Eighth-grade students in Singapore were the only students worldwide to outscore Minnesota eighth-graders on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessment. Minnesota and Singapore tied for first place in the world in earth science.

It's not just the 13-year-olds who do well. In 2004, Minnesota tied with Wisconsin for highest average ACT college entrance exam score. Minnesota is second in the country for its number of high school graduates. And it's first in the country with the number of classroom teachers — 86 percent — who have degrees in the fields they teach.

The above statistics don't mean we disagree in principle with the federal law's aim to help all children reach their highest academic potential. A troubling gap continues in Minnesota in the academic achievement levels of minority and nonminority students. NCLB is a federal law without national uniformity, which is both a strength and weakness.

Bear that in mind as you hear national academic comparisons that defy common sense.


Why we need a real Governor, not a pledge.

Real people, real pain

I was pleased to see the Jan. 4 editorial "K-12 education / Live up to the promise."

In 2002, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would not raise taxes because the average Minnesotan would feel little pain from the spending cuts. I beg to differ.

I have two daughters, and I'm a PTA president in a school district where two elementary schools will close. Many people are feeling pain because the school they love is closing.

One of my daughters has Down syndrome and receives supplemental health coverage through Medical Assistance.

Many people with disabilities rely upon this assistance (not available through private insurance plans) to live successfully outside of expensive institutions. She's part of the "skyrocketing health care costs" that Pawlenty wants to rein in to give public education a "small increase." Cuts to these programs will harm real people -- like my daughter -- and cause great pain, too.

Pawlenty says I need to choose one daughter over the other since he can't find enough money to adequately fund both public education and health care. Is this what he meant by the average Minnesotan not feeling pain?

It is immoral to force a parent to choose one child over the other. The majority of Minnesotans believe government should fund both public education and health care.

Average Minnesotans are feeling pain, and raising taxes should be an option. Pawlenty was wrong, and we should stop paying for his mistake.

Julie S. Anderson, Roseville.


Time to Get to Work!

StarTribune Editorial: K-12 education/Live up to the promise
January 4, 2005

About four of every 10 Minnesota budget dollars go to educate the state's nearly 900,000 schoolchildren. At just over $11 billion, the K-12 budget is the single largest among state agencies. So with all that cash -- and some local referendum dollars to boot -- why are so many school districts imposing fees, reducing programs and laying off staff?

They are hurting financially because the state has failed to keep pace with the rising costs and changing demands of a good educational system. Four years ago, the governor and Legislature said the state would take on about 80 percent of public education costs to ease the education burden on local property taxes. But lawmakers have yet to fulfill that promise; in fact the state backpedaled more than it moved forward.

During the first couple of years after the shift, funding remained essentially flat. But school costs and expenses didn't, resulting in severe budget reductions for many districts. Then the state adopted school funding bills that pretended inflation didn't exist, again squeezing local districts. And last year, as state leaders wrestled with a billion-plus deficit, about $200 million was trimmed from K-12.

Students and their families have been squeezed enough. It is time for state leaders, especially Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to step up and complete the business of properly funding schools. The governor has said recently that he is willing to devote more resources to K-12 education. We hope he is serious and is talking about funding in a meaningful way.

It won't be good enough to devote token nickels and dimes on smaller initiatives such as the ones he has highlighted in the past. A few bucks here or there on pilot programs to restructure teacher pay won't help districts maintain reasonable class sizes or hang on to much-needed staff.

At a minimum, state leaders should add inflationary increases to the basic per-pupil formula. At about 2 percent, that would amount to about $400 million over the biennium. That increase should not be made at the expense of other good programs in health and human services or local government aid -- robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an answer; it is an abdication of responsibility.

Another leftover K-12 matter is restoration of the nearly $200 million that was cut from the learning budget during the last legislative cycle. That might seem like small potatoes out of an $11 billion budget, but that little amount had big consequences. As districts are under increased pressure to improve achievement, those budget bites pulled the plug on several programs specifically for struggling student populations. Minneapolis had to discontinue after-school service for several thousand youngsters before the school year ended. Some suburban school systems scaled back or eliminated all-day kindergarten. Head Start and other early education programs took hits, too -- at the same time research was confirming that quality preschool gives students an academic edge and that every dollar spent on early education yields many dollars in return for society.

Back in November, Minnesota voters turned several Republican House members out of office, in part because of unhappiness with the state of K-12 affairs. Pawlenty and House leaders should listen to their voices and do the right thing by Minnesota students.