Leveling the education playing field

Governor addresses educators at SMSU

Photo by Karin Elton Gov. Tim Walz talks about how Minnesota can adjust to demographic changes and how to support recruiting more teachers of color so they can reflect communities of color.

MARSHALL — Before Gov. Tim Walz took the lectern to speak Tuesday afternoon before a roomful of area educators convening to address education issues in rural Minnesota, Dr. Kumara Jayasuriya, Southwest Minnesota State University president, took a moment to tell what SMSU is doing to help future teachers.

He said SMSU is a good place for students to get an education.

“We have been rated seventh in the nation for best value, affordability and return on investment,” Jayasuriya said. “And being affordable is necessary to alleviate the teacher shortage problem. SMSU graduates are 99 percent employed or in graduate school. Most of our education programs have a 100 percent job placement rate.”

Jayasuriya said SMSU is offering 10 new totally online programs next fall and half of those are education degrees.

SMSU is partnering with area education cooperatives and colleges to promote teacher education.

“We are collaborating with SWWC so paraprofessionals can earn a special education degree,” he said. “We also collaborate with Minnesota West.”

Another education concern is the disparity between students of color and teachers of color.

“Worthington School District has 60 percent students from minority populations. In Minnesota less than 4 percent of teachers are teachers of color,” he said.

Walz started his speech by giving a shoutout to his rural Nebraska roots.

“I’m incredibly proud to have graduated in a rural school,” he said. “I had 24 classmates — 12 of whom were cousins. I had a world-class education and I had instructors who helped shape my life.”

As a teacher, one of his first posts was teaching geography in western Nebraska in an overcrowded former band room shared with another teacher.

“On the other side of the temporary divider was a young English teacher with a bit of an accent. She turned out to be Gwen Whipple, a graduate of Ivanhoe High School and Gustavus,” he said. “I was lucky enough that she ended up becoming my wife. We talked about where we wanted to start our career in a place that valued education and that was very clear to me that that was Minnesota.”

Walz shared some statistics with the audience, half of whom were listening online.

“Things have changed and as the president talked about, demographics are changing,” he said. “This month, will mark the first time, Minnesota is one of the states that has crossed this barrier first, we now have more people over 65 than under 18 in this state. There are counties that are losing population and counties that are gaining population.”

The demographics will impact the economy.

“These are natural demographic changes, but If we don’t do things right we exacerbate problems, we weaken ourselves, we weaken our economic viability and more important, we weaken our ability to have equitable education,” he said.

“So the labor market is going be tight, we’re going to have to make some changes. I am very proud of the fact that Minnesota has one of the most vibrant economies in the Upper Midwest. We rank either 1, 2 or 3 in so many categories. One thing I’m really proud of is we rank second in the nation among states where people were polled on happiness. We rank behind Hawaii and I’ll give them that.”

Walz said Minnesota has to continue to progress.

“We can’t rest on our laurels. Seventy percent of our workforce in this state is going to come from communities of color.”

Walz said Minnesota students rank high scholastically, but not students of color. The state has to look at the whole picture surrounding the child.

“Children don’t come in pieces,” he said. “That’s why we’re focusing on housing, we’re focusing on nutrition, we’re focusing on health care. We’re focusing on the whole person and the whole family.”

Walz reiterated the disparity between students of color and teachers of color.

“There is some solid research done by the people in this room and applied by the people in this room that we have got to have teachers in front of them that look like them,” he said, after which the room erupted in applause.

“My lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, an Indigenous woman, says that she was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota before she saw someone standing in the front of the room who looked like her.”

Walz talked about equitable education funding, the “Minnesota Miracle.”

“I applaud the city of Worthington. I want to applaud the voters there who voted for the school referendum, because there was a narrative out there that was on the national stage that we weren’t going to get that and you know where we’re at, we have counties today having to vote on refugee resettlement,” he said. “There’s an idea of a divide and conquer strategy, dividing by urban and rural, or divide by communities of color. That Minnesota Miracle leveled the playing field by having equal opportunity.”

Walz’s education agenda includes significantly reducing eliminating the need for local referendums to fund school construction projects. Walz was able to increase per-pupil spending by 2% last session and further subsidized special education.

Education issues are among the governor’s top objectives heading into the opening of the 2020 Legislative session Feb. 11.

Walz hopes potential teachers see education as a field they want to go into and not be burdened with student debt.

Walz said his almost 19-year-old daughter attends the University of Minnesota.

“Do I want her to go into teaching? The answer is ‘yes,'” he said. “We need those bright, fresh faces. We want to them to have joy in the classroom and that sense of fulfillment.”

Tuesday’s education conference was coordinated by Dr. Rhonda Bonnstetter, president of the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and Dr. Rose Chu, Senior Policy Fellow at Minnesota Education Equity Partnership. Attendees came from all over the state — Duluth, Winona, Staples, and many from the metro area, Bonnstetter said.

“We invited members of PELSB (MN’s Professional Educator Licensure and Standards Board), Education Minnesota, Minnesota Rural Education Association, The Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers, MDE staff members, and both state and federal legislators, including members of the House Education Policy Committee and the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee,” she said.

When asked Tuesday by the Independent about tax competitiveness for western Minnesota, which is next to states with lower tax rates, Walz responded that “South Dakota ranks 49th in educational outcomes. The issue is not so much taxes as a whole, but what are you getting for your taxes? Are you getting a workforce that is stronger, which Minnesota has. Are you creating an infrastructure that allows products and people to be able to move the way they need to?

“I think from a sheer zero-sum proposition, having lower taxes, South Dakota receives far more federal dollars than Minnesota; they rank third in the nation on federal help. So I think the issue on tax competitiveness needs to be take holistically and this economy is the strongest economy in the entire Upper Midwest. So the issue is how effectively are we using those dollars and what are we getting for them?”


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