When Mark Dayton first ran for governor, I wrote a wonky little story about a new kind of assessment. When a Minneapolis principal I’d interviewed called after it appeared I flinched a little before picking up. Had I double-checked my notes? Had I gotten something wrong?
Nope. Turned out Dayton, who was running in a crowded field of DFLers who all had remarkably similar—and shallow—things to say about K-12 education, had called the principal and asked if he could stop by.
It can’t have been the only impromptu cold-call. Unlike his challengers, Dayton’s stump remarks on education were peppered with real-life examples of needs his policies would address. His vignettes were rich with the kind of detail that suggested he did more listening than flesh-pressing.
With the Legislature headed toward adjournment and a hailstorm of vetoes coming out of the governor’s office, I wonder where that man went. Particularly since his re-election, on education policy Dayton seems increasingly like a guy who is listening to one set of voices: Education Minnesota.
Thursday Dayton vetoed a bill to overhaul the way Minnesota teachers are licensed that had broad, bipartisan support. And he appears willing to go to the mat over his much less popular universal school-based pre-kindergarten plan known in Capitol shorthand as VPK—voluntary Pre-K.
The latter will likely result in a replay of 2015, when his veto necessitated a special session. Both are examples of how the governor’s agenda has become more political and less policy-oriented during his tenure.
I wonder, as he signed Thursday’s veto letter, whether Dayton recalled that the first bill he signed upon taking office in 2011 was an effort to begin overhauling the very same archaic teacher-licensure apparatus he just allowed to continue its dysfunctional ways.
How dysfunctional? Well for starters, a year after Dayton signed a bill saying the Board of Teaching had to create a clear and reasonable path for teachers with credentials and experience from other states to work in Minnesota schools, the board was still deliberating whether it liked the law.
Two years later, the board still hadn’t acted. Three years passed and then four, until a lawyer got fed up with the steady stream of individual teachers in his case files with incredible resumes who couldn’t get Minnesota licenses—or answers why not. Some got their training at Harvard or—no trifling matter in a state where the teacher corps is 90 percent plus white—at Historically Black Colleges and Universities or Tribal Colleges.
The threat of a lawsuit always secured a license, but did nothing to fix the problem. He filed suit on behalf of a large group of teachers. This was followed by a judge’s order requiring the board to fix one of the problems. And then by a contempt of court finding when—surprise!—it didn’t.
In addition, there was the 2015 passage of a law strengthening the language requiring the board to stop protecting the franchise and a report from the state Legislative Auditor pronouncing the system “broken” and calling for a fresh start.
Notice what’s missing from that chronology? Intercession by Dayton. He appointed the board members, to whom he could presumably have signaled his displeasure if he actually wanted the bill he signed into law enforced.
Where does Education Minnesota come into this? Well, in addition to the flurry of tweets that preceded this week’s veto, there have been years of opposition. This saga has gone on so long the board has gained and shed members, but almost all of them throughout have been tied either to the union or to the public teachers’ colleges whose faculties are represented by EdMN.
It’s a closed loop: Board members protect union jobs from candidates trained elsewhere, and—and board members honest to Pete talked about this in some of the deliberations—protect Minnesota’s teacher training programs.
Here let’s segue from job protection to job creation. In his early years, Dayton had exactly zero dollars to spend. As the state recovered from the recession and shortfalls turned to surpluses, he got little wonky fixes to education policy McGyvered into the law. Such as the creation of an institutional home for early ed in state government and the establishment of a bare-bones budget line to fund pre-K when the economy came back.
Even without more than token funding, that budget line ensured the continued existence of a program years in the making that defined high quality in preschool settings, proved its value in terms of closing the achievement gap and directed scholarships to impoverished families to get their children into effective programs. The approach had broad support from everyone from the child development experts to Minnesota’s civic and business leaders.
But come the first surplus, the expected failed to happen. The governor didn’t propose turning on the taps. Instead he announced his desire to provide preschool for every 4-year-old in the state, regardless of income, in a public school setting. Creating a 14th grade would, of course, translate into a pretty hefty membership increase for Education Minnesota.
Beyond EdMN and the state’s commissioner of education the proposal didn’t get much traction. Even the first head of the early ed agency Dayton had created was openly critical. Classrooms overstuffed with kindergarteners thanks to Dayton’s push for statewide full-day-K, superintendents politely asked for other things.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when state lawmakers from the House and Senate met to reconcile their education finance bills. Rep. Jennifer Loon, a Republican from Eden Prairie, had some pointed questions for Commissioner Brenda Cassellius about the partial Pre-K program that was the compromise that emerged from the 2015 special session. How many new slots for 4-year-olds had the money created, Loon wanted to know.
In a number of districts that applied for and got the money, it turns out, the answer is zero. St. Paul, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported last year, got money for 78 slots but used the money not for 4-year-olds but to hire aides for kindergarten classrooms. Other districts eliminated fees middle- and upper-class families paid for Pre-K.
(For the serious edu-dweebs in the room, this is a variation of the “supplement not supplant” debate that often accompanies education funding issues. St. Paul used the new state dollars to supplant existing budget money, vs. supplementing existing spending to create or expand something.)
All told, Loon insisted at the hearing, 14 of the 74 districts that got the initial money created no new seats. “This program is not being used to serve additional children,” she said. “We are taking funds away from poor kids and using them to serve others.”
For her part, Cassellius testified that the school-based programs were where the demand was. The 269 districts and charter schools that applied for the next round of funding would serve 13,800 children, she said: 9,100 in rural Minnesota, 3,600 in suburbs, 167 in charter schools and 500 in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Just 44 percent are impoverished.
But would 13,800 new seats be created? And would an equitable portion target children in poverty? And do those applications reflect schools’ desire to add classrooms, or the dawning understanding that with state spending on K-12 lagging far behind inflation, supplanting can stanch a little red ink?
Explaining his 2015 veto, an angry Dayton dismissed assertions that schools did not have room for new Pre-K classrooms. District leaders, he said, “Don’t want to do it ’cause they don’t want to do it.”
If that’s what he heard, he wasn’t talking directly to the principals and others on the front lines. This is Dayton’s last budget cycle. It might be the 11th hour, but he still has time to go knock on a few doors.