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Let’s focus on a big payoff from improving achievement among Minnesota’s students of color

Date Published: 07/24/2011

Author: Matt Kane and José Pacas

Let’s focus on a big payoff from improving achievement among Minnesota’s students of color

St. Paul Pioneer Press


Now that our divisive state government shutdown is over, Minnesota’s political leaders, and all of us really, need to re-read an inspiring Pioneer Press editorial that ran the day after Christmas, just before the session began.

That editorial urged Republican and DFL leaders to unite behind a theme of "educate and compete, compete and educate…. This is Minnesota’s niche."
But as we work on this main function of state government, we all must face the fact that our long-term ability to compete depends squarely on lifting the educational outcomes for kids of color. This means not only the kids in our own neighborhoods in the eastern half of the Twin Cities, but the African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and American Indians in the entire state, who are growing as a percentage of our student population but who have not had adequate opportunity and success in education.

Education, beyond any doubt, has been a key to our prosperity in Minnesota. It follows that poor educational outcomes by increasingly large segments will hurt all of us eventually, and that their greater success will put more money in all our pockets.

How real is this payoff? The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has calculated that total personal income in Minnesota would increase by about $4 billion annually if all ethnic and racial groups had the same educational attainment levels and earnings as whites – a development that would raise the economic well-being of all Minnesota’s families and drive business growth.

Right now Minnesota’s overall school statistics still look good. We’re above the national mark for the share of teens graduating from high school, the share of adults with college degrees, and the aggregate achievement scores for many standardized achievement tests.

If we look beyond the overall numbers, however, we find troubling and well-documented disparities. Those statistics have been endlessly reported, but here’s a chilling fact from our recent policy brief on education:  If Minnesota had the same racial and ethnic mix as the United States as a whole, our overall score on the nation’s 4th grade reading test would drop below the U.S. mark to the same level as Alabama, Arkansas and West Virginia.
Further, Minnesota will see an actual decline by 2020 in the share of students completing high school and in the share of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees or higher, unless action is taken to boost the graduation rates of the state’s growing minority communities.

This challenge really is an opportunity to be better than ever. With Minnesota’s population becoming increasingly diverse, we have the chance to address and overcome these educational inequities, tap the talent and potential of all Minnesotans, and secure our classic Minnesota advantage well into the future.
Significant growth among diverse racial and ethnic communities made Minnesota one of the fastest growing states in the Midwest region in the last decade. Minnesotans of color are a crucial share of the state’s population and its workforce. And students of color now account for a quarter of the enrollment in Minnesota’s public schools – three-quarters in the St. Paul Public Schools.

So what do we do next? The smartest equity-building reform policies are comprehensive – not focused on magic moves or single solutions – and require public investments in students from birth through higher education completion. They prepare our very young for schooling, create strong and early readers, and challenge and support students as they engage in higher skills and critical thinking. In addition, smart investments target those young Minnesotans most in need of attention.
Many knowledgeable and concerned groups, including the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, are producing valuable recommendations that target educational equity issues in the state.

The pre-session Pioneer Press editorial suggested that the fight over taxes and the budget would be bruising and divisive and that "those fights must continue. But on our future as a place where people have a chance to succeed, there should be no debate. We need a new breed of disciplined politicians who want to pass laws and balance the budget with two thoughts in mind. ’Educate and compete. Compete and educate.’ "

We couldn’t agree more with that editorial’s hopeful assertion that "this is where our fractured state politics can be put back together." And not just for Republicans and Democrats, but for Minnesotans of every color and culture, in a state with a proud reputation for fairness and equality of opportunity.


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