Minnesota describes education priorities for the president

Joe Nathan
Center For School Change

What should the top educational priority be for Congress and the Obama Administration? Twenty-six Minnesota education leaders responded when I asked them last week. Their responses fell into several major areas.

Caledonia Superintendent Ben Barton wrote, in part, “Our schools must be relevant to our changing world. In recent history the federal government mandated accountability in schools for student achievement in reading and math.  These accountability measures have increased pressure on schools to focus on reading and math at the risk of reducing student opportunities in other areas. Reading and math are important, but it is not the only thing that is important. I would like to see the federal government encourage schools focus on programming that will promote 21st century skills such as: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination.

“Our job is to prepare students for the world outside of school. History would tell us that it will be difficult for us to know what our students’ world will look like when they graduate.  We must facilitate the acquisition of skills that will enable our students to adapt to any challenge they will face outside of school… our world is different now and  our schools must change to stay relevant.”

Cam Hedlund of Lakes International Charter in Forest Lake, had similar advice: “Please move away from standardized test scores as the sole measure of a school’s success. Please insist that states measure school success by how well educators meet the needs of the whole child, by how well they help students become well-rounded world citizens, by how well they help students maintain physical and emotional well-being and balance and by how much students come to love learning and maintain a sense of inquiry throughout their lives.”

Our taxes have paid for development of new assessments that are supposed to give a broader, more complete view of student progress. Standardized tests measure some, but not all important things we want students to learn.

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent spoke for many when he wrote, “We need a bipartisan approach to address special education funding. The Anoka-Hennepin school district is now subsidizing special education services to students using $31 million annually from our general fund. We support wholeheartedly the services to our special education students but it should not come as a cost to our other students. State and federal mandates should be adequately funded or the statute intent is not genuine.”

According to the non-partisan publication Education Week, Congress promised to pay approximately 40 per cent of the cost of special education costs when the initial federal law was


passed in 1975. But current federal spending covers about 16 percent of the costs. Providing 40 per cent would involve going from about $11.5 billion to about $35.3 billion. Legislation that would do this by 2021 was introduced earlier this year.  It did not pass.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, agreed and added to these priorities. He wrote: “My top priority for the next president is to stop treating federal education policy like a political football and bring some stability to our schools. That starts with closing the Pell Grant shortfall once and for all, actually honoring the federal government’s  promise to pay for special education in the states and replacing No Child Left Behind with a new law that creates sensible accountability while preserving flexibility at the state and local levels.”

Jason Ulbrich, Executive Director of Eagle Ridge Charter in Eden Prairie, wrote that “My number one priority in education for the next president… is to encourage high performing schools to share best practices and reproduce.  This would include providing promised funding on time and to give flexibility in utilizing federal monies.”

It may be naïve to think that Congress and the president will agree on most, or even all of these suggestions. But it’s a good list. I hope legislators are listening and learning from these folks.

Joe Nathan received awards for his work from parent, professional and student groups. Reactions welcome, [email protected]