SD49 Fall Conversation: Renewing Minnesota's Education Promise

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Senate District 49 GOP held its fifth annual Fall Conversation, on “Renewing Minnesota’s Education Promise”, on November 20th.   Almost 60 people attended the event, hosted in the formal setting of the library of the Edina Country Club.  An excellent panel was moderated by Mitch Pearlstein (Center of the American Experiment) and included Chas Anderson (former House Caucus chief of staff and former Deputy Commissioner of Education), Devin Foley (Intellectual Takeout/Better Ed) and Mike McFadden (Christo Rey Jesuit High School, Tesfa International School). 

Mitch Pearlstein began the conversation by emphasizing how important education is at a time of family fragmentation and growing income inequity.  Each of the speakers was then asked to make 1-2 main points that they wanted people to take away with them.  Mike McFadden reminded everyone of Minnesota’s historical leadership in education as demonstrated by Orville Freeman’s beginning of tax credits, pioneering in charter schools and tax credits.  Since then, Mike felt we’ve lost our way as evidenced by unacceptable public school performance results.   He believed that nothing is more important than our children and that we as Republicans should “put a stake in the ground” about the importance of education.  He is confident that we are going to get the lead back.

Chas Anderson stressed that there should be as many high quality education options available to parents and students as possible.  She reminded everyone of the difficult decisions that parents have to make based on lottery results or cost constraints that affect their child’s future.  Chas urged that parents be given the resources needed.  She also believes that public schools need to be improved.  There are two major factors in determining a school’s success, the quality of the classroom teacher and the family environment.  Anderson stressed that we need strategies to address both. 

Devin Foley commended the audience for their investment in their communities and education.  He pointed out that it’s the family’s responsibility to control their children’s education, not the state.  Education, he believed, is not just reading and math.  Education is passing on society’s traditions, values and culture.   Devin used current curriculum summaries to show how these can be lost.

Pearlstein discussed two possible approaches to policy and culture elements of education and concluded that our focus needs to be on both.  Foley pointed out that while there are policy solutions such as improving teacher and curriculum quality, equally important are family conditions and parental choice.   He believes we have to confront some difficult basic data points.  For example, Department of Health statistics are showing that 80-90% of black children are born out of wedlock (i.e., nine out of ten) in Minneapolis and St. Paul. For white children, it's 30%.  Nationally, millennials have 50% of children out of wedlock. Devin concluded that these things matter.  Mitch echoed the concerns about the family, noting that the U.S. has the highest family fragmentation rate in the world. The studies are overwhelming about how damaging these fragmented families are.     

Anderson said that it is not an “either-or” choice.  Policy can have an enormous impact.  For example, 21 states have adopted school choice in the past year.  There have been more choices for parents to send their kids to quality schools.  She believed that we need to help those in need but also break that cycle of dependency.  As Pearlstein said, people interested in coming to the Fall Conversation are people who can affect how things are done in the state.  McFadden agreed, saying that solving education problems are actionable.  He used the example of excessive Minneapolis costs and low minority performance.  He pointed out that in Christo Rey, he has seen 100% of the students graduate because they are provided an opportunity and the support they need to succeed. McFadden noted that the DFL will not counter the teachers’ unions.  He argued this should be a Republican issue because we care and can unite people.  “Let’s move the needle on education.  We know how to do it.  If we succeed with education, then we will have earned the right to address the touch social issues.”

Mitch argued that the teachers’ unions are not invincible. There are a number of groups out there working for reform.  He’s optimistic about the future of this movement.  “But you must be relentless,” Mitch said.  “Keep pushing”.  Devin agreed.  “Stay positive.  Give parents the tools they need.”  Chas added that elections matter.  Across the U.S., the flip of state legislatures to Republican majorities has made a difference.

The meeting concluded with panel and audience discussing what citizens can do, what the difference is between school choice and opportunity scholarships, educational approaches in blue and red states, home school treatment, and contact with political representatives. An overriding effective strategy Devin pointed out was, “Get the truth out and the truth will fight for itself.”  While there is an achievement gap, Minnesotans care about children, and Republicans need to give parents something very positive to work for like choice and opportunity.

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