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Investment in education is sweetest spot for bipartisanship

Date Published: 05/05/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


Three months before former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came to Minnesota to pitch his model for improving school test scores and closing the achievement gap, he was joined at Miami’s once troubled and rapidly improving Central High School for a celebratory event with President Barack Obama.

This friendly joint appearance by a rather famous conservative governor (one who is resisting pleas by GOP activists to run for president in 2012) and a Democratic president got extensive coverage in the national media and education press. Guess which one of those leaders at Miami Central said this:

“It is an issue of national priority… Every child, regardless of their ZIP code or family income, should have access to a quality education.”

That egalitarian refrain, a favorite of liberal American education reformers for two centuries, was voiced by Bush. And in his presentation at the Minnesota Capitol last week, Bush unapologetically expressed a similar conviction about the value of public education.

After reassuring his Republican fans in the room that he was a genuine, “head-banging” conservative, Bush said in no uncertain terms that most students in Florida and elsewhere in the foreseeable future will be educated in public schools. Money and energy spent on improving outcomes “is an investment… in untapped capacity,” Bush said. “If we don’t do it, our country will be in decline.”

Bush’s specific policy formula for Florida was typically conservative and hard-nosed: an end to social promotion for third-graders if they could not read; a rather harsh school-grading system from A to F for each school based on its progress; alternative teacher certification; and modified and targeted voucher systems. A key statistical bragging point: The percentage of fourth-graders who could not read at grade level dropped from 49 percent to 27 percent in one decade.

There is not yet any broad consensus that the Florida model is an unqualified success. The impressive gains in fourth-grade reading obviously are achieved in part because so many third-graders are held back. The gains by low-income and nonwhite students don’t seem to hold up on standardized tests in later years. Bush himself said Florida’s graduation rates “still suck” and are among the worst in the nation. On almost every statistic, Minnesota, a model of progressive education funding and policy for some 75 years, outranks Florida by large margins.

Moreover, Florida is hardly the only place in the country where encouraging achievements have been recorded in recent years. The Cincinnati public school system, for instance, has reported remarkable success in lifting graduation rates and closing the graduation gap between African-American and white students. And that success is attributed to a more progressive and comprehensive “cradle-to-career” approach that included buy-in and participation by teachers unions and energetic support from business leaders, families and students.

According to an analysis by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the success in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky came about because “a core group of community leaders decided to abandon their individual agendas in favor of a collective approach to improving student achievement. More than 300 leaders of local organizations agreed to participate, including the heads of influential private and corporate foundations, city government officials, school district representatives, the presidents of eight universities and community colleges, and the executive directors of hundreds of education-related nonprofit and advocacy groups. These leaders realized that fixing one point on the educational continuum – such as better after-school programs – wouldn’t make much difference unless all parts of the continuum improved at the same time. No single organization, however innovative or powerful, could accomplish this alone. Instead, their ambitious mission became to coordinate improvements at every stage of a young person’s life, from ‘cradle to career.’”

Bush’s efforts in Florida were also marked by a push for broad business and community involvement, and at least some investment in early childhood education and preparation. The success stories that are emerging nationally often reflect a hybrid of conservative and progressive ideas, get-tough “sticks” on school systems and top priority on standardized test results, and helpful “carrots” that provide money and direct support to students and families most in need of help.

The more important lesson is that if large numbers of citizens of good will and entire communities get mobilized to attack this problem, and if they stay at it with carrots and sticks, they can move the needle significantly. And Minnesota can learn from both Florida and Cincinnati in closing our own nation-leading achievement gap, which has been largely ignored in part because our populations of color are still relatively smaller than those in Florida and Cincinnati.

Watching Republican governors dance with the Obama administration in finding common ground is instructive and encouraging. In Indianapolis two weeks ago, at a town hall meeting with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a potential GOP challenger to his boss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan summed up the “common agenda:” “We all want great schools for our children. We all want a stronger, more secure America. And we know that education is the key to our future…. I would like everyone to take a risk, demonstrate real leadership and courage, and to step outside their comfort zones… [and] not let areas of disagreement stand in the way of our collective progress.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, May 5, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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