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Pawlenty pledges more school aid, but with strings attached

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Pawlenty outlines education plan
Gov. Tim Pawlenty outlined some basic principles for his education spending plan Friday to the Minnesota School Boards Association.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

A two-percent increase in the basic amount schools get for each student would cost around $300 million a year. Pawlenty told school board members he recognizes that school costs for fuel, salaries and health insurance are going up.

"I concede the reality, we have got to get you more money, we got to get you at least inflation and hopefully better, particularly when you look at all the variables. But we have a system where we are always in crisis."

Pawlenty suggested that one factor for the constant school funding crunch is that school leaders can't do much to control costs. The biggest expense for schools is salaries and health insurance for teachers and staff. Pawlenty says he doesn't think teachers make too much money, but he has pushed for an alternative way of paying teachers. His Q Comp performance pay program is voluntary for districts, and 34 districts have signed up so far.

Pawlenty told school board members that while he supports early childhood education, he's not sure the state should require every school district to offer all-day kindergarten. DFL legislative leaders have called for statewide all-day K, at a cost of $160 million a year.

"I'm not opposing it, I'm just saying as we spread around the money, is that the biggest bang for the buck right now? Or do we take some money and say, if you're at risk, if you're poor, if you're disadvantaged, we'll have those kinds of opportunities first and foremost for you."

The Minnesota School Boards Association is one of many education groups that backs funding for statewide all-day kindergarten. But the group's director of governmental relations, Grace Schwab, says school boards want the final say on whether full-day programs are best for their districts.

"We're looking for a voluntary, optional program that allows us to do this. I was just talking to an Austin school board member, and they've implemented all-day kindergarten in Austin for one year, and she said the gains students have made are astounding," she said.

Pawlenty says he doesn't question the benefits of early childhood education in preparing children for school. But he made it clear to school board members that he's more concerned about improving Minnesota high schools.

"Early childhood is really important. But it disproportionately is - you can zero in on the kids who are at risk. This high school thing is everybody," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty says too many high school students are, in his words, adrift and indifferent. He wants to make high schools more rigorous, more like college preparatory academies. Pawlenty singled out urban school districts for criticism. He says no urban district in the country, Minneapolis and St. Paul included, has been able to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color. 

"You can't have a situation where 50 percent of your African-American kids don't graduate from high school, and expect your city, your community or your state to function."

The chief academic officer in Minneapolis, Bernadeia Johnson, says she shares Pawlenty's concerns, and his desire to improve high schools and the academic performance of students of color.

"We're working hard to put in place some specific strategies to help those students. And I think one starts with trying to make sure that we're transitioning students from middle school to high school, and really creating a plan that they can follow, and putting in place the supports to give students access to advanced placement and honors courses, putting more rigor - as he said - in our course work."

Johnson says she also believes it's critical to start early with all-day kindergarten. She says Minneapolis currently offers one full-day class at every elementary school, but would like to expand that to serve all children if the district gets more state funding. The governor promised to spell out his educational proposals in his State of the State address next week, and in his budget January 22.