In TV ads and debates, education rises as campaign issue

School buses parked outside a building.
School bus depot near the Cass Lake-Bena School in Cass Lake, Minn. Test scores, school choice and district budgets are among the issues where candidates up and down the ballot are staking out differences.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News file

As Minnesota students head back to school, education is returning to the fore as an issue of political contrast.

Sagging test scores, debate over classroom curriculum and budget squeezes in many districts are all getting attention from candidates and voters. That’s true in races up and down the ballot — from governor to the Legislature and even state auditor.

Approaches to education — whether money or policy — are vastly different among the candidates in the state’s top races.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz launched a television ad this week reminding voters of his time as a teacher and his push to ramp up aid to schools — or in the ad’s language, he fought to “fully fund our schools.” The spot takes a swipe at Republican challenger Scott Jensen for questioning whether more money is needed, using a snippet from an interview where he compared education to a “black hole.”

Jensen, a former state legislator and past school board member, pushed back on the characterization.

“We just gave one of the biggest chunks of money to K through 12 in the history of Minnesota. And evidently, we're not fully funded. What does that mean? Is there some threshold and until we get to that we're not fully funded? Or when we do get to that? Does that threshold change?” Jensen asked. “We've got to raise achievement and stop thinking that dollars are always going to get us where we have to go.”

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For years, debate around education has mainly been about how schools are faring financially. Democrats put the focus on whether districts have enough money to hold down class sizes, fairly pay teachers and offer a broad array of courses. Republicans hone in on whether dollars translate into student gains.

Lately, there has been considerable attention around what happens inside public school classrooms and who has control over curriculum.

Candidate Dr. Scott Jensen answers questions
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dr. Scott Jensen answers questions from the media after a debate with Gov. Tim Walz at Farm Fest on Wednesday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

That’s the fault line emerging in this campaign. 

DFL candidates, including Walz, are building their education messaging about relieving financial pressure facing schools; In general, Republican candidates zero in more on classroom content and parental control over that.

This week, Jensen released a 10-point plan for education.

Jensen’s plan calls for more enforcement of student truancy laws. It seeks greater focus on standards to measure math, reading, science and social studies proficiency. He wants schools to be better equipped to deal with children with violent backgrounds or in mental health crises.

Perhaps most notable are components around school choice and parental involvement. Jensen wants to add new layers of parental notification and input into what’s taught and what might be off limits; he says some lessons around race and culture go too far.

His choice proposal would steer some dollars that would otherwise go to public schools into scholarships or accounts for families who want to pick a different learning option, including parochial schools.

Jensen said creating more competition to public schools would force all schools to measure up to public expectations. He said school districts wouldn’t necessarily lose funding for all students who leave, but if they lost substantial enrollment it would point to something deeper.

“I have no problem at all, with a given school district, finding itself one day with no students at all, because everybody left because everybody knew there was a problem and they were gonna get their kids educated,” Jensen said at a State Fair news conference. 

The Walz campaign questions the legality of such an arrangement but says the overall Jensen plan would further hamstring public schools.

The year Walz took office, the state spent about $9.6 billion on early childhood through K-12 education. That’s due to exceed $10.4 billion for the current fiscal year — although a plan to add hundreds of millions of dollars more stalled in the Legislature. Walz said that should be just a start.

Politicians stand for photos with early fairgoers
Early fairgoers to the Minnesota State Fair were greeted by Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith while waiting for the gates to open.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I've said that we got more work to do,” he said in a recent interview with MPR News. “I would like to see us reform how we fund education — move away from these bonding referendums. I'd like to see us implement our Due North plan to get more teachers of color.”

Walz has found himself increasingly on the defensive around education, in part due to new test scores that show a dropoff in math and reading proficiency.

Republicans say it’s evidence that distance and hybrid learning the governor advocated during COVID-19 set many students back. 

“It's not isolated to Minnesota. We know that a test is a moment in time,” Walz said in response. But, he added, “We certainly take it seriously.”

Walz acknowledges some children are still catching up. But he also notes more parents than in the past decided against having their children tested so that might have affected the numbers. The percentage of students who didn’t take the test was slightly higher than normal, but not substantially more.

Walz also found himself mopping up after a comment he made at the Fair about the number of days children lost to in-class learning. He told WCCO-TV last weekend that 80 percent of students missed less than 10 days of in-class instruction, without specifying a time period. 

His critics slammed him as misleading voters and minimizing the education disruption. “That is a barefaced lie,” Jensen said of the Walz remark.

Walz said his comment was misconstrued but he later clarified that he was suggesting most schools returned to a more normal schedule last school year.

Graduation rates have largely been static for Minnesota students overall under Walz’s watch. There was a small dip during the 2020-21 school year, which is the most recent for which data is available. Gaps between white students and those of color remain.

Education is a hot issue in other races on the ballot. 

Of course, it’s the main topic in contests for 373 school board seats on November’s ballot. But it’s also likely to drive debate in competitive races for the state Legislature. 

Minnesota’s divided-control Legislature is viewed as an intense fight for party supremacy, with one or both majorities a real possibility to flip. Republicans have the Senate majority now and DFLers run the House.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, expects education to be a prominent issue in swing-district races, particularly in the suburbs.

“People know that there's not enough staff in the schools right now. We have a shortage and part of that comes from under-investing in education,” she said. “And it's a very high priority for Minnesota voters to invest in education so we can retain that kind of leadership post that Minnesota has historically had as being one of the best educated states.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said crime and inflation come up more often in conversations with voters. But he said Republicans won’t shy from the debate over education — both who has the say over classroom curriculum and how money gets spent.

“It’s policies that have emanated out of the power of the teachers union at the legislature to kind of hold Democrats to the line of the only answer is more money, that we can't reform the way we're educating these kids and give them maybe a creative solution that they need and deserve,” Daudt said. “So I think we do have a better position on these issues.”

Education is also coming up in some races where it isn’t as present usually. 

Ryan Wilson, the Republican running for state auditor, said in a WCCO Radio debate last weekend that he’d use the office to examine where education dollars are going. 

“We're hearing ‘Is the money making it to the schools?’ We're happy to give more, some people say we give too much,” Wilson said. “But regardless, they want to know that once the money is there, is it making it to the classrooms so the teachers can teach and the kids can learn.”

Blaha said the schools aren’t a bastion of waste.

“You're implying that schools aren't using their money properly. It's really important that we do not speculate on what's going on. You know, it doesn't matter what you think, it only matters what you know,” Blaha said in the debate with Wilson. “And if the auditor speculates you can cause real problems for schools who are trying to pass levies right now.”

MPR News reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this story