School leaders describe education priorities for the president

by Joe Nathan
Sun Thisweek

What should the top educational priority be for Congress and the Obama administration? Twenty-seven Minnesota education leaders responded when I asked them recently. Their responses fell into several major areas, some general, some specific.

Jane Berenz, School District 196 superintendent, urged the president to: “Create an environment that honors and elevates the profession of teaching by investing in and supporting professionals who are in front of children every day.”

Lisa Snyder, Lakeville Area Public Schools superintendent, urged the president “to make education a priority in our nation. Educating all American students to high levels is our most powerful tool to combat poverty, racism, violence and government dependence.”

Jay Haugen, Farmington superintendent, urged the president to “help lead us in the creation of the best educational system in the world – a system that possesses both excellence and equity, a system that goes far beyond meeting standards, to one that customizes education for every student, engaging each student in ‘sky’s-the-limit’ learning based on their own unique strengths and talents.”

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin superintendent, spoke for many, including Eden Prairie Superintendent Curt Tryggestad, when he wrote, “We need a bipartisan approach to address Special Education funding.  The Anoka-Hennepin school district is now subsidizing special education services to students using $31 million annually from our general fund. We support wholeheartedly the services to our special education students but it should not come as a cost to our other students. State and federal mandates should be adequately funded or the statute intent is not genuine.”

According to the non-partisan publication Education Week, Congress promised to pay approximately 40 percent of the cost of special education when the initial federal law was passed in 1975. But current federal spending is about 16 percent of the costs. Providing 40 percent would involve going from about $11.5 billion to about $35.3 billion. Legislation that would do this by 2021 was introduced earlier this year, but it did not pass.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, agreed and added to these priorities.

“My top priority for the next president is to stop treating federal education policy like a political football and bring some stability to our schools,” he said. “That starts with closing the Pell Grant shortfall once and for all, actually honoring the federal government’s promise to pay for special education in the states and replacing No Child Left Behind with a new law that creates sensible accountability while preserving flexibility at the state and local levels.”

Jason Ulbrich, executive director of Eagle Ridge Charter, Eden Prairie wrote “My number one priority in education for the next president … is to encourage high performing schools to share best practices and reproduce. This would include providing promised funding on time and to give flexibility in utilizing federal monies.”

Finally, many leaders agreed with Cam Hedlund of the Lakes International Charter in Forest Lake. He wrote: “Please move away from standardized test scores as the sole measure of a school’s success. Please insist that states measure school success by how well educators meet the needs of the whole child, by how well they help students become well-rounded world citizens, by how well they help students maintain physical and emotional well-being and balance and by how much students come to love learning and maintain a sense of inquiry throughout their lives.”

Our taxes have paid for development of new assessments that are supposed to give a broader, more complete view of student progress. Standardized tests measure some, but not all important things we want students to learn.

It may be naïve to think that Congress and the president will agree on most, or even all of these suggestions. But I think it’s a good list. I hope legislators  listen to and learn from these folks.

Joe Nathan has received awards from parent, professional and student groups for his work. Reactions welcome at [email protected] Columns reflect the opinion of the author.