Gubernatorial candidates spar on schools issues

Improving early childhood education, closing the achievement gap and making sure schools retain top-notch teachers were among the issues Minnesota’s three gubernatorial candidates could agree on Sept. 23 during a debate on education issues.

But Democrat Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner were divided on how to achieve those goals. The candidates took turns jabbing each other’s proposals for an hour in front of a “Minnesota Meeting” audience in a Twin Cities Public Television studio in St. Paul.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer moderated the debate, asking questions from the audience and a nonpartisan group encompassing an array of educational interests.  

Early childhood education was a topic that came up several times throughout the conversation.

Dayton said he wanted to provide state funding to make optional all-day kindergarten available to all children. When asked about the price tag of such a proposal, Dayton said he would have to defer to the experts. He said it would be a priority of his administration to find the revenue to make it happen.  

“Some people say we can’t afford to do it,” he said. “I say we can’t afford not to do it.”

Horner has proposed investing $360 million in early childhood and other education programs.

“I think early childhood should be a priority and I put money in my budget to make it a priority,” he said.

He said the education system should be seamless from pre-kindergarten through lifelong learning options. He said not capitalizing on early education would lead to more high school dropouts and a higher social cost to the state later.

Emmer said he also wants to see an improved early education system. When grilled by Horner and Wurzer about past votes against increased funding for such programs, Emmer argued that boosting spending wasn’t sustainable. He would rather prioritize and reallocate existing resources.  

“When I vote against something like that, yeah, it’s tough, because I’m the only one sitting up here right now that’s got seven kids and I’ve got five of them in school still,” Emmer said. “This is a big deal to somebody like me.”  

As another example of how funding might be shifted, Emmer said the state has spent $700 million to try to close the achievement gap, but Minnesota still has one of the largest disparities between white students and students of color in the nation.

“I absolutely do believe, contrary to what some might suggest, that it’s not about throwing more money,” he said. “It’s about putting the money we have where the professionals say it needs to go.”

On the achievement gap, Emmer said more attention to the pre-kindergarten years is needed, along with more parent involvement and school accountability. He said schools should be graded based on their performance outcomes.

Horner said early education is the key to closing the achievement gap and he again highlighted his budget appropriation for that. He also said the state would need to go beyond early learning and look at restructuring schools. He said one of the positive aspects of the controversial federal No Child Left Behind law is that it has highlighted the achievement gap.  

Dayton agreed that early childhood education is a critical to closing the gap. He also said more schools should be implementing reading and writing diagnostic tests to ensure that students are reading at grade level.

Dayton, who is endorsed by Education Minnesota, a union representing 70,000 educators, said having good teachers in the classroom makes a big difference. During his introduction, he lauded his third and fourth grade teacher for saving his life.

Asked if he would change the current tenure system, which protects teachers who have worked a certain number of years, Dayton said there needs to be a better way of getting rid of bad teachers and administrators. But he said tenure is a union staple and one that he doesn’t intend to shake up. He said he’d rather use a scalpel than a saw to change the structure.

Horner said the tenure system should be revised because as it stands, schools are losing innovative teachers and the programs they’re tied to.

“We do need to have some flexibility so we can keep the best teachers in the schools,” he said.

Emmer proposed a five-year review on tenure to give districts more flexibility.

“Nowhere else in our state do you get to keep your job just because you’ve been there the longest,” Emmer said. “You keep your job because you’re providing something of value and you’re performing. Teaching should be no different.”

The candidates also debated how to repay $1 billion owed to public schools after a funding shift. Each of the candidates alluded to the harsh financial climate for schools in their closing statements.  

“We’re in an era now of limited sources, I realize that,” Dayton said. “My priority will be education.”

He said the state expects 20,000 new children coming into its schools during the next two years.

Emmer said “politicians have been making promises for my whole life,” but those promises are usually not feasible or sustainable. He said the state should empower educators and find ways to improve the system in a fiscally responsible way.

“At some point you’ve got to realize that you can make all the investments in the world and if you don’t have jobs for these people, if you don’t have a growing economy, you’re going to lose in the end anyway,” he said.

Horner, who spoke last, flipped Emmer’s comment.

“If we don’t have the talented, skilled people to fill the jobs in Minnesota, we won’t have the businesses in Minnesota,” he said.