Column: Education leaders suggest priorities for Congress, president

By Joe Nathan – Guest Columnist

What should the top educational priority be for Congress and the Obama administration? Some 27 Minnesota education leaders responded when I asked them last week. Their responses fell into several major areas.

Lisa Hendricks, director of Partnership Academy Charter School in Richfield, was one of several stressing early childhood as a priority. “In order to tackle the massive achievement gap we have in our nation (and especially in Minnesota), we need to get serious about finding ways to fund early childhood and pre-K.  The research is clear and we have been talking about it long enough, it’s time to do something about it and make it a priority.”

Les Fujitake, Bloomington superintendent said, “The president can best help public education by recognizing the enormity of what schools and teachers are being asked to do to overcome the pervasive inequalities of opportunity that exist across the country. He can then help by inspiring parents and communities to fulfill their civic duties of being actively engaged in their children’s education.”

Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin superintendent, spoke for many 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.”

Aldo Sicoli, Robbinsdale superintendent, also stressed shortcomings in federal funding of special education. “I would like to see the president work with others to federally fund special education to the level that was intended when these much needed services became mandatory. The federal government has never fulfilled its promise regarding the funding of special education services,” he wrote.

Eden Prairie Supt. Curt Tryggestad agreed that federal special education funding should be a top priority. His top priorities were first to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act-Title I as soon as possible. “It is already far overdue,” he said. Second, he would like to see mandatory funding for IDEA (the federal special education law) at 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure.

According to the non-partisan publication Education Week, Congress promised to pay approximately 40 percent of the cost of special education costs 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.

Edina Superintendent Ric Dressen, wrote, “My number one priority is to move education’s vision for our nation forward with a greater focus on power of technology and the need to ensure the funding commitments for special education are met.”

Jason Ulbrich, executive director of Eagle Ridge Charter in 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.”

Dennis Peterson, Minnetonka superintendent wrote, “Here is my wish:  That the president develop a plan that will get the economy back on track so all citizens have an opportunity to be productive.”

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, agreed and added to these priorities. He wrote: “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. 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.”

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 are listening to and learning from these folks.

Parent, professional and student groups have given Joe Nathan awards for his work. Reactions welcome, [email protected]