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Minn. Agency Decried for Bad-Mouthing Schools

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Minnesotans' faith that their public schools are among the nation's best has been shaken over the past six months.

First, the state's 8th graders posted disappointing scores last spring on a new, statewide basic-skills test in reading and mathematics.

Then, the department of children, families, and learning issued a critical "report card" on schools in July, awarding an A in only one of 12 categories.

Now, Minnesota education groups have banded together to say that bad intentions at that state agency--which replaced the state education department--may be making the bad news worse.

They want legislators to create an independent office of educational accountability because, they say, people are not getting objective data. The groups are also firing back at the department with good news about the state, including students' strong showing on national college-admissions tests and praise in two recent national reports for its early-childhood and teacher-preparation systems.

Rep. Alice Johnson, the Democratic chairwoman of the K-12 education-finance division of the House education committee, held a hearing last month to try to sort out the conflicting reports.

"There was definitely a slant that was given to the report card," Ms. Johnson said last week. "Maybe the purpose was spurring schools on to improve, but I don't think it's very effective."

But Bruce H. Johnson, the commissioner of the year-old department of children, families, and learning, argued that the report card has made people take a critical look at schools--a crucial step in improving education.

"Somehow, you've got to jar the public consciousness," Mr. Johnson said in a recent interview. "The system is having to relook its premises, and the public is getting new information. We're getting close to the point where everyone is talking about the same things, and that's incredibly important."

The upshot of the hearing was not so much that the state's data were incorrect, Ms. Johnson said, but that educators, legislators, and the department are drawing different conclusions from it.

Voucher Issue

Looming over the debate is Gov. Arne Carlson's support for vouchers, which he has proposed offering to low-income students in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Republican governor, who failed to find support for the measure this year, is expected to push vouchers again in next year's legislature.

Mr. Johnson, a lawyer, was appointed by the governor to head the department of children, families and learning, which merged the education department with various social service agencies. Some education groups want an outside agency to monitor schools because they argue that Mr. Johnson is laying the groundwork for Mr. Carlson's pro-voucher agenda.

Beyond his support for the governor, Mr. Johnson is charged with implementing Minnesota's new graduation standards. To graduate from high school, students beginning with this year's 9th-grade class will be required to pass the new state tests in math and reading, set at an 8th-grade level.

The results of the tests administered last spring to 8th graders suggest that some schools have their work cut out for them. Statewide, 63 percent of 8th graders passed the reading test; 76 percent passed math. On the report card, these marks earned Minnesota schools a C-plus.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have significantly larger minority enrollments than the state as a whole, scores were much lower.

Sandra Peterson, the president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, said the test results highlight the challenges facing urban schools.

She called the state report card "a political boondoggle" prepared without consulting education groups. It rated the state's schools on such measures as dropout rate (D), education funding (B-plus), standards implementation (B-minus), school schedules (C), and length of the school year (D).

'Political Maneuvering'

Education groups dispute, for example, the state's assertion that the annual dropout rate has increased 38 percent in the past 10 years. They say Minnesota has the nation's highest graduation rate, at 89 percent.

"If you're going to put out a report card, let's talk about what should be the criteria for schools, and then let's get the correct data to back it up," Ms. Peterson said. "This is not about education or about kids--it's about politics."

The Minnesota Education Association and MFT--joined by the associations representing principals, administrators, school boards, and the state PTA--have held two press conferences to call for the creation of an independent agency to monitor education.

Last month, they released the results of a follow-up study of Minnesota high school graduates, conducted by the education department since 1972, that showed a high degree of satisfaction among employers with the quality of education.

Asked at the hearing to explain the two differing views of the state's schools, Mr. Johnson drew laughter when he replied that the reports were used for "completely different purposes."

James Rickabaugh, the superintendent of the Burnsville school district, said such vastly conflicting reports are jarring.

"That sort of political maneuvering doesn't sit well in Minnesota, which has prided itself on openness and completeness in making policy based on good data that is shared with everyone," he said.

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