Sunday, March 20, 2011

Critical times for Education at the Capitol

We are on the brink of critical decisions for the future of public education in Minnesota. The decisions will be made by the three players in St. Paul, the Governor, the House and the Senate. Public education faces two great challenges this year. The first challenge is whether the legislature will provide the funding we need in education to do our job. The second challenge is whether a genuine reform agenda can pass the House, Senate and get signed by the Governor.

There are a number of Republicans, who are sponsoring reform initiatives that will genuinely improve public education. Some of these reforms are thoughtful and productive, and will make significant improvements in our ability to deliver quality public education for all children. Some of these reforms are thoughtless and destructive, and play to the Republican mindless base. But one can begin to see within some of the legislation that is advancing through the House and Senate a number of reforms that will help us do our job better.

At the same time, there is a battle raging in the two legislative bodies over whether to provide adequate categorical funding, as in the past, for students with special needs, for example students with disabilities, and students who are overcoming educational barriers. For example, the House omnibus bill proposes to cut support for special education significantly, without allowing school districts to reduce spending. Some legislators are seeking to reduce compensatory education over time in order to transfer revenue to school districts with fewer students with high educational needs. Others are proposing even more significant cuts in overall spending.

And then there are legislators proposing to give management temporary or more permanent cost controls that would restore balance between labor and management. The House omnibus education bill, for example, contains some modest bargaining reforms which prevent unions from striking to force school districts to increase compensation faster than the legislature increases funding. One of the reforms limits the period when bargaining can take place. Senate File 056 proposes a temporary two-year freeze in public employee compensation. Both of these provisions will be vigorously opposed by organized labor. Even though each of these provisions involve rather modest reforms, organized labor will try to paint them as if they were the same as the draconian proposals offered in some other states, such as Wisconsin.

The three major players will come together at the end and try to reconcile all of these proposals, and the final proposals will require concessions from both sides. The question is, what will each side hold firm on, and what will they be willing to give up on.

For those of us who are committed to putting children first, the great fear is that the Democrats -- Dayton and his team -- will put organized labor first above all else, and will refuse to make any concessions on management's ability to keep labor costs within reason. If they take that position, then it will strengthen the hand of those Republicans who will want something in return. They are likely to say, ok, if you won't make concessions on the cost control side, then you are going to have to make concessions on the revenue side. The consequence would be devastating for public education and for children, and ultimately for labor as well. It could leave us with, at the same time, greatly reduced revenues in the midst of a labor environment that imposes still ever rising unrestrained labor costs. I call this the lose-lose compromise scenario, in which Dayton digs in and refuses to make any concessions objected to by labor, and in return, Republicans dig in and take a hard line on revenues, and especially on revenues needed for districts with high rates of poverty. Out of this scenario will come financially crippled school districts, with skyrocketing labor costs, and the inability to deliver needed changes in the delivery of education.

The other great compromise would create a win win situation for children and for public education. That is the scenario where the Dayton administration demands adequate revenues for public education, using his veto pen to prevent crippling funding reductions, but agrees in return, to make needed concessions that will allow public school districts to control their costs and to implement the major reforms necessary to take a quantum leap forward in educational quality. This is the great test of the next two months, will it be win win or lose lose for children. Governor Dayton holds the keys, and I'm holding my breath that he puts children first.

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