Missing from Pawlenty education plan: true reform

Let's not allow nostalgia to limit our children's future. We owe our children their own future, not our past. —Gov. Tim Pawlenty, State of the State Address, January 16, 2007

Governor Tim Pawlenty gave Minnesota plenty of the past in his education agenda, highlighted by a 7.7% increase ($986 million) to K-12 education over the last biennial budget, or $13.745 billion (40%) of the governor's total $34.4 billion state budget, which he grows by a 9.3 percent over the current biennium.

"In any discussion regarding education, the debate about the level of funding consumes most of the oxygen in the room." Education reform advocates are suffocating.

Bonus money to schools that achieve or maintain a three-star rating or better from the state in reading and math; for schools to show "rigor, relevance, and results;" for schools to provide Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses (although we have reservations about IB); and for schools to focus more on math and science are positive, but even they simply maintain the status quo of a "top-down, expert-driven, one-size-fits-all system," as Craig Westover said in his analysis of the governor's education agenda.

Pawlenty's proposed mandate for schools to spend at least 70% of its budget in the classroom, carried in the last session by former Representative and newly-appointed Assistant Commissioner of Education Karen Klinzing is another example of bureaucratic, "Father Knows Best" thinking.

Rather than throwing more money at the schools or meddling in curriculum and finance decisions at Minnesota's 339 "independent" school districts, the governor should take a fresh look at his own early childhood education initiative. According to the governor's office, "the Governor's early childhood scholarship program will provide each at-risk student up to $4000 to attend a certified kindergarten readiness program of the family's choice."

Hello, vouchers!

By allowing the money to follow the child, rather than the school, the state of Minnesota would put the kids first, as opposed to putting schools first. As ABC's John Stossel reported on his 20/20 program, "Stupid in America:"
American schools don't teach as well as schools in other countries because they are government monopolies, and monopolies don't have much incentive to compete. In Belgium, by contrast, the money is attached to the kids — it's a kind of voucher system. Government funds education — at many different kinds of schools — but if a school can't attract students, it goes out of business.

Belgian school principal Kaat Vandensavel told us she works hard to impress parents.

She told us, "If we don't offer them what they want for their child, they won't come to our school." She constantly improves the teaching, saying, "You can't afford 10 teachers out of 160 that don't do their work, because the clients will know, and won't come to you again."

"That's normal in Western Europe," Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby told me. "If schools don't perform well, a parent would never be trapped in that school in the same way you could be trapped in the U.S."
Pawlenty should expand school choice in the form of vouchers or tuition tax credits. This could replace our panoply of expensive, socialistic big government mandates and incentives from Saint Paul with a mechanism that Americans should learn to harness as well as the Belgians: free market forces. Then give our independent school districts true independence from state mandates, empower building principals and hold them accountable for results, and watch innovation and academic performance take off like iTunes.

Two other more esoteric measures are also required for true reform: rewriting the incomprehensible K-12 funding formula, and replacing the opaque Uniform Financial Accounting and Reporting Standards (UFARS) accounting system used by Minnesota schools. Perhaps the latter measure could prevent another Statutory Operating Debt situation like the one being suffered in the Hopkins Schools.

Finally, as the chief protector of his state's sovereignty, Governor Pawlenty should wield the Tenth Amendment to leave the federal No Child Left Behind Act behind.