School & District Management

Minnesota Governor Struggles to Keep Seat

By Michele McNeil — October 27, 2006 7 min read
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At a forum on science and technology here last week, more than two dozen educators and community leaders gathered at Patrick Henry High School to put one of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s signature policy initiatives into action. They brainstormed about using internships, field trips, and hands-on activities to get more students interested in high-tech, high-paying careers in math, science, and technology.

But the problem, as they see it, is that reform is clashing with reality—the reality of tight budgets.

The forum illustrated the hard time Gov. Pawlenty is having overcoming many educators’ view that his ideas for improving K-12 education in Minnesota conflict with the decisions he’s made over the past four years to manage the state budget.

So as the Republican governor campaigns in a fiercely fought race for re-election Nov. 7, he’s struggling to define himself as an education reformer in his own state, even as he has staked a claim at the national level through his work with the National Governors Association.

In his bid for a second term, Mr. Pawlenty is up against not only Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, but also Peter Hutchinson, a former superintendent of the Minneapolis schools, who is running as the candidate of the Independence Party.

Redesigning high schools to emphasize math and science is one of Gov. Pawlenty’s big priorities, and the forum in Minneapolis was part of a series of community discussions to kick-start the initiative. Mr. Pawlenty won a $2 million grant last year through the governors’ association’s Center for Best Practices to help high schools get more students interested in courses and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

But teachers in his home state say there are critical elements missing from the state’s education improvement efforts: policies that give districts and teachers more time and more money to accomplish those goals.

“It’s hard. We’ve had 50 percent staff turnover, funding for work coordinators has been cut, and class sizes are going up,” Roosevelt High School’s Michael O’Connor, a science teacher and health careers coordinator, said during the forum.

The election, which is focusing primarily on health care and education, is so hard fought that the two major-party candidates have spent most of their time fundraising to support a nasty television-ad war, and not on public campaign events. A poll released last month by the Star Tribune in Minneapolis had Mr. Hatch leading Mr. Pawlenty 46 percent to 37 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Few Specifics

Attorney General Hatch, whose education platform centers on higher education, hasn’t said much about what he would do for K-12 education, and his campaign didn’t provide more information on his ideas or make him available for comment.

Click to view interactive feature: Proposals to the Voters
(Requires Macromedia Flash Player.)

In his education policy paper, available on his campaign Web site, Mr. Hatch says he wants to narrow the achievement gap by expanding early-education programs, increase parental and business involvement in schools, and properly fund higher education. But he offers few specifics.

Mr. Hatch has indicated that he’s unsure of the state’s budget condition, so he doesn’t want to present a specific K-12 plan, according to local news reports. Still, he won the endorsement of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Gov. Pawlenty’s education re-election platform centers on making college more affordable and a proposed requirement that at least 70 percent of K-12 school funding be spent in the classroom—a variation on the so-called “65 percent solution” advanced by many of his fellow Republicans around the country.

On the national level, Mr. Pawlenty is seen as a reformer who has worked to implement a “systemwide package” of changes beyond just financial solutions, said Aimee Guidera, the director of the Data Quality Campaign, which is part of the Austin, Texas-based National Center for Educational Accountability.

She cited a teacher-compensation initiative he has championed, as well as efforts to close the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds, make use of the business community to help redesign high schools, and enable more high schoolers to earn college credits.

Last year, Gov. Pawlenty served as the chairman of the education committee of the Washington-based NGA, which works to unite governors on policy initiatives in areas such as education and health. If he wins re-election, he’ll be the NGA chairman next year, and will get to shape the organization’s next major policy push.

“Governor Pawlenty’s really used the bully pulpit to embrace new ideas, and put them into place,” Ms. Guidera said. “He doesn’t just talk about it on the national level, he implements it in his own state, too.”

Those ideas haven’t endeared him, though, to many educators in his home state. Education Minnesota President Judy Schaubach said that in endorsing Mr. Hatch, the union is supporting someone whose K-12 plans are relatively unknown. So the endorsement was more a vote against Gov. Pawlenty, said Ms. Schaubach, whose 70,000-member union is an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“We’ve had four years of him,” Ms. Schaubach said. “We’re judging his performance.”

Teacher Pay a Focus

What’s got many educators most upset are budget decisions Gov. Pawlenty made when he first took office in 2003, a tough year fiscally for most states. The new governor was faced with a $4.2 billion budget deficit caused by the national economic slowdown.

Having pledged not to raise taxes, Gov. Pawlenty flatlined K-12 spending, which takes up about 42 percent of Minnesota’s $30 billion two-year budget. In 2005, he helped give schools a 4 percent increase.

For public school educators, the paucity of funding increases overshadows Gov. Pawlenty’s other efforts to revamp schools.

Even as candidates for governor in other states this year are making pay-for-performance initiatives part of their platforms to improve teacher quality, Gov. Pawlenty campaigned on such a policy in 2002. Last year, he won passage of what he calls Q Comp, for “quality compensation,” a voluntary program that gives districts more money if they create a salary structure that pays teachers not just on seniority, but also on classroom performance.

In the 38,000-student Minneapolis public schools, school board Chairman Joseph A. Erickson said some schools that participate in Q Comp are seeing results. But he thinks that success has less to do with money than the added professional development the program involves. What’s more, even as the district uses Gov. Pawlenty’s new program, it has been forced because of state budget decisions to lay off hundreds of teachers in recent years, Mr. Erickson said.

Declining enrollment is a problem, but state funding to schools is failing to keep pace with the district’s growing fixed costs, such as health care for teachers and fuel for buses, he said. “The biggest issue for the next governor will be funding,” he said, “because we’re really hurting here.”

Gov. Pawlenty has focused on education initiatives that aren’t necessarily tied to funding. A believer in using data to help shape and evaluate policies, he’s established what is known as a P-16 council, which aims to align standards from prekindergarten through postsecondary education.

Mr. Pawlenty has led the charge to establish more programs that enable high school students to earn college credits. He won passage this year of legislation to require all students to take Algebra 1 by 8th grade, and Algebra 2 and physics or chemistry to graduate from high school.

Minnesota has traditionally fared well in comparisons with other states, such as on National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally sponsored program that tests samples of students in key subjects. But changes in the K-12 picture here have policymakers worried.

The state’s public school enrollment is declining overall, yet the number of immigrant students is growing. The trend has exposed a growing achievement gap between different racial and ethnic groups that state officials say is among the worst in the country.

Yet to Gov. Pawlenty, money isn’t necessarily the answer. “While I’m committed to continuing that fiscal commitment to education,” he said via e-mail through a campaign spokesman, “I’m also committed to continue implementing new and innovative ways to improve student achievement.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Minnesota Governor Struggles to Keep Seat

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