For Minnesota to remain a top player in industry, our focus on education in Minnesota cannot waver. As a teacher, having worked in three different districts, I understand the issues. Having worked directly with families, I know that fully-funded schools are key. Education is an investment in our future. We need schools with the best possible services for families, and to keep the best teachers on the job.
For his part, Governor Walz proposed a 3.5% increase each year for two years, as a part of the proposed biennium budget. This would have given more funds for districts to spend on repairs, technology, and contracts. Instead, the Minnesota House and Senate agreed on a 2% increase each year over the next two years. But this doesn't do much to fix a system that's way behind.
Since 2003, the amount of money a school gets from the state has been 10% lower than it should have been, according to a 2018 Minnesota Department of Education report. The money that makes up a school’s general fund goes towards what it needs. When this money isn’t available the cost is put on the tax payers. It takes the form of higher property taxes or local sales taxes, even though the money is already available through state-wide revenue sharing. Over and over again this money is given out as a tax break, and districts have to go to voters with a bond or levy. It used to be that districts went to their communities with bonds and levies when they wanted to try something bold. Now they need them to repair plumbing, fix leaky roofs, and negotiate better contracts.
Proper access to counselors and mental health professionals in schools reduces disciplinary problems and increases school connectedness, says the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW). Yet, in a state that prides itself on being a leader, we are fourth from the bottom when it comes to school counselor-to-student ratio. The American School Counseling Association recommends one counselor per 250 students. In 2016, the CASCW found that Minnesota had one school counselor for every 743 students. This includes 10 counties where no counselors were available to middle school students. Counties where students were most likely not to have access to school counselors were rural. The students who lacked access were more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch, Black, or Native American. For this reason, I support legislation that sets standards for the number of counselors and other mental health professionals per student. This includes access for students in elementary schools. The sooner we get to the root of mental health and behavior concerns, the better for the student.
I also believe that the systems that license teachers are outdated and keep some of our best out of teaching. Licensing programs should function more like the union trades programs. A future teacher should have the ability to work alongside master teachers as an apprentice. Over time they would work up to the level of journeyman. Beyond that, they become a master. This system would allow them to make money as they work to become their best. This system would let college students enter teaching without fearing three months of unpaid work as a student teacher. It would be one way to fight back against student debt.
Student loan debt is crushing teachers, and programs designed to relieve the pressure don't work. Due to this, many forego becoming educators. Why earn a four-year degree, or train beyond that, for a position that pays under $40,000 per year the first year? Others leave the profession to work in the private sector, where they can earn more, perhaps in a job they don’t love. The simple solution to this is to pay teachers more. These are professionals with four or more years of education in their field. Pay them what they're worth. I support legislation that raises the average starting salary for teachers to $50,000. Also, we need to expand loan forgiveness programs. Many teachers apply for these programs only to be turned down year after year, without reason. I support making these programs more accessible and transparent for applicants. Let’s remove the lottery element from this process.
The state also needs to develop data systems for students that are shared by districts across the state. When students move into new schools, they lose time. Slow data transfers and inaccurate reporting keep them away from their best education. If the state worked alongside private developers to create a data system shared by all districts, students would move seamlessly. Schools would then be better ready to serve them. As a special education teacher I can think of cases where I waited months for complete student records to come in. Later I would find out that in that time the student was losing out on getting the best possible education, whether that be the best class placement for them or services guaranteed through their Individualized Education Plan. I support the creation of student data systems that are intuitive, work, and are shared by all districts. This is a benefit to schools and the families they serve.