Wayzata candidate forum avoids debate

On Monday night, the candidates running to represent residents of the Wayzata Public Schools district at the state legislature met in a forum sponsored by the school district's Legislative Action Committee. The district overlaps Minnesota Senate Districts 32, 33, and 43.

I attended the session for SD43, which had about two dozen in the audience. All of the endorsed legislative candidates in SD43 were present: the incumbent Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) and Republican challenger Norann Dillon (Twitter: @dillon4senate); HD43A incumbent Rep. Sarah Anderson (R-Plymouth) and DFL challenger Audrey Britton; and HD43B incumbent Rep. John Benson and Republican challenger Brian Grogan (Twitter: @bwgrogan).

A forum like this is not a debate. The moderator read questions and allowed all candidates to respond in turn. Afterwords, the audience was invited to ask questions, to which each candidate had a set amount of time to respond. The format seems designed to avoid confrontation, which is probably appropriate for the venue. Still, there were insights if you knew how to listen for them.

Bonoff said early in the forum that education is her top priority. This was an interesting statement in light of Bonoff's response in a recent debate:
"While I speak a lot about education because I serve on the Education Committee and I serve on the Transportation Committee, I think the environment is first and foremost."
Bonoff promoted the idea of "regionalizing the business" of school districts and touted her "shared services" bill. Dillon stated pointed out that while some economies of scale could be had by pooling purchasing for example, districts should be aware of whether such arrangements are voluntary or mandated by the state.

The audience question about early childhood education prompted the most controversy of the evening. While most of the candidates expressed support for early childhood education, it was Grogan and Dillon who had the courage to say that the emperor has no clothes (Dillon's aphorism was, "This dog don't hunt"). Grogan pointed to research revealed by Karen Effrem, governmental relations director for EdWatch, that demonstrates the same or lower academic achievement level for children who enroll in early childhood programs, compared to children who do not. Dillon said that the return on investment must be considered when allocating scarce state revenues to any program, including early childhood education, and questioned the overwhelming ROI cited by Bonoff. Dillon wondered with all of the dollars spent since the 1960s on Head Start and similar programs, why is there still such a large achievement gap?

Although "local control" was a safe point of consensus among the candidates, Bonoff said that there must be some set of uniform academic standards, otherwise there would be a patchwork of curricula in which there could conceivably be schools that teach their students to deny the Holocaust, for example. If you have been reading this blog since its beginning, you probably know that the rub is in who determines the standards (anyone remember Christine Jax?). That is why state academic standards, like state funding, are so politicized. For example, who should decide whether viewpoints critical of evolution or global warming theory should be heard in the schools: the state or local school boards?

Speaking of local control, all of the candidates agreed that unfunded mandates are a problem, but Benson basically said that fully-funded mandates are the solution (example: the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or "special ed") , while Grogan called Benson for removing mandate relief from a bill. The DFL must think that mandates are a problem only until they are fully funded.

I did not have a chance to ask any provocative questions before the forum adjourned, but I had two ready:
  • K-12 education funding consumes nearly 50% of the state general fund budget, yet almost no one understands in toto the Minnesota Nightmare of per-pupil formulae, categorical aids, and other minutia that determines the amount of state aid that each local school district receives. What reforms to the funding formula would you support to increase the transparency and fairness of K-12 funding?
  • Homeschool and private school parents pay double for education. Would you support tax credits or funding that follows the child to level the playing field for these double-taxed taxpayers, and raise Minnesota's quality of education by increasing competition among education providers?
After the forum adjourned, Grogan commented to me that of the various education forums he participated in, this forum had the best moderator questions and most engaged audience. Effrem, who was also in the audience, shared with me EdWatch's concerns about whether Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer is in agreement with its positions on academic freedom reforms.