Local school leaders describe education priorities for the President

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.

Cambridge-Isanti School District Superintendent Bruce Novak, wrote, in part,

“We need all legislators to focus on what is best for the youth in our country and put aside partisan politics in supporting education. Public Education without a doubt is the one institution that promotes and assures our country’s democratic values and principles and can help our country recover economically. And as such it needs to receive a much higher level of attention in supporting this effort.

“Let’s keep education out of the political tug of war and focus on funding it properly so all children have the same opportunity.

“Not all students are college bound, nor should they be … we have to focus more on career pathways and opportunities for students, vocational and technical education is requiring a high level of academic skill in order to be successful in their world. Last of all I would say fully fund every mandate that is put into effect, beginning with Special Education which has been an uncontrollable program with increasing demands and no revenue to support the laws enacted, and to make matters worse – we (local school districts) have to take General Education Aid to pay for all the excess costs associated and mandated by law.  There is an increasingly disproportionate amount of money ($15,000 per pupil unit, ppu) spent on a small group of students (i.e. Sp. Ed.)  at the expense of the larger group ($8,000 ppu) traditional or non-identified students,” added Novak.

Braham Area School District Superintendent Greg Winter wrote, “The current presidential administration … has put too much emphasis on school reform. Although there certainly does exist in some states a need for a global look at reform for school systems, what is getting lost in the process is early childhood education. There needs to be a continued effort on early childhood programs such as ECFE and Head Start.  Even more importantly at the state level, we need to implement all day, every day kindergarten across the state.”

Many leaders agreed about the need to put more federal funds into serving students with special needs.

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent 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% 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, 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.”

Cam Hedlund of Lakes International Charter in Forest Lake  spoke for many: “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.

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]