ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
Imagine a wild-eyed futurist getting up in front of a crowd of Minnesota business and education leaders in 1995, and boldly making these three outlandish predictions.
“Over the next 20 years” our imaginary futurist intones, “a racial and economic inequality crisis will overtake us in Minnesota. The percentage of kids from economically distressed homes and thus qualified for free-and-reduced lunch in our public schools will rise statewide from 25 percent to 40 percent, and to well more than half the students in many districts.” (Audience gasps).
“Also over the next 20 years,” the alarmist continues, “we will simultaneously cut back on our classic Minnesota formula for way-above-average education investment. While profits and CEO pay and total income for the top 1 percent soars, the percentage of our personal income that we devote to public schools will decline from 5 percent to 4 percent, or about $2.5 billion per year less than our current effort.” (Audience gasps again, some muttering “Oh come on!”)
The futurist/alarmsist continues: “And despite this crushing, pincer-like squeeze on our public schools and teachers — much costlier and distressed students, more kids of color and immigrants and non-English speakers, and reduced financial effort — graduation rates and test scores in 2015 will NOT be declining sharply but will be holding steady or slightly rising.” Audience sits in anticlimactic silence.
I was covering public policy and politics as a newspaper journalist in the mid 1990s. I recall vague predictions of increasing diversity and some concerns about growing inequality. But nothing like the above. And of course the imaginary prophet would have been on target.
According to the national Kids Count Data Center, Minnesota has gone from 24.6 percent of our kids qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in 1993 to 38.3 percent in 2013. According to the state government’s official Price of Government data, we currently invest about 4 percent of our total annual personal income in public schools, as opposed to 5 percent in 1995 (more than $2.5 billion less in a state economy with about $275 billion in income). And looking at all the line graphs on many measures of educational achievement in Minnesota — including graduation rates, college entrance scores, basic reading and math scores, measurements of the gap between white and non-white students — the general trends have been flat or toward very slight improvement.
The recent release of the latest reading and math scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCAs) were routinely described by the media as “disappointing” or even “grim.” Reading scores were up a smidgeon statewide, math was down a little.
Interest groups critical of government, taxes, public schools and unions pounced as usual, interpreting the results as proof that schools need to be privatized, that voucher systems are needed, or that teachers and their unions are failing our children. Defenders of the schools noted that there were considerable difficulties and glitches the past year with testing process and results, problems attributed to the large global corporation that administers the tests, Pearson.
Neither side nor the news media said much about these long-term trends on poverty and inequality and racial diversity, or the megatrends on school finance, or the larger socio-economic context.
This inequality context absolutely must be a more central part of the conversation around school performance. The fact that our schools are only coping, and not wildly succeeding, under enormous demographic and financial pressure, while our socio-economic system continues to badly underperform for most of our population, is the story of our time.
Seldom in the great perennial push-and-pull of education policy debate does attention focus on the underlying mega-trends. Rarely does any sustained study and attention focus on why our economic and social system — our businesses and our communities — are failing to provide enough good jobs or livable pay and benefits or support for ALL our children.
School reformers, and there are lots of good and smart reform advocates in Minnesota, tend to emphasize that socio-economic context is no excuse. They point to a few private or public charter schools that are “beating the odds” by focusing on rigor and getting results through more heroic effort by teachers and administrators. A no excuses mindset is actually helpful, and we must continue to address clear failures and negligence by public schools and teachers, and drive toward effective redesign and innovation. The status quo must be challenged.
But our biggest gains in education attainment and achievement in the United States came during the Progressive Era and the New Deal. These periods were marked by a combination of economic growth and expansive local and national government programs — the high school movement, Social Security and Medicare, the G.I. Bill, housing programs — that were building assets and lifting huge masses of mostly white people into middle-class prosperity. Until something like a “new New Deal” takes hold globally and nationally, reducing overall inequality and eliminating racial disparity, we should not expect test scores and education outcomes to dramatically improve.
We are not helpless, however. And the good news out of all this is that Minnesotans, on their own, in local communities from the Iowa border to the north woods, are getting to work with a more holistic community approach to student success. We’ve written about this movement and detailed specific examples across the state frequently in the Capitol Report, and most recently on the Op-Ex cover of the Star Tribune.
These community partnerships include: Austin Aspires (Austin); the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success (Grand Rapids and surrounding north-central communities); Partner for Student Success (St. Cloud); Every Hand Joined (Red Wing); Northfield Promise (Northfield), and Generation Next (in both Minneapolis and St. Paul). Shining examples include inner-city neighborhood partnerships that are getting results with a higher dosage of collaborative wraparound support — the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood.
Each is a highly organized local collaboration, with strong commitments from all quarters in the community. Among the key players are businesses and other employers; educators, from child-care centers to local colleges; parents and teachers and youth themselves, and public and nonprofit social service agencies. Each group is developing its own custom-made local plan and “road map” for how to provide support that begins at birth and drives for measurable success at key junctures, such as third-grade reading and eighth-grade math, with a new goal line of postsecondary credentials and career readiness. A high regard for data, accountability and rigor, and action, suffuses the partnerships.
These models may not be the only or most complete answer to our stagnant test scores and the underlying inequality crisis. But the principle of everybody in, working with all kids every step of the way from birth to career, is the right way to share the burden and the responsibility with schools and teachers. They can’t do it alone.
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, August 13, 2015.