Wednesday, February 22, 2006

COLUMN --- School choice returns, with more heat, breadth

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:51 AM |  

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's baaaaaaack. The education establishment and DFL's worst nightmare, meaningful school choice for low-income families, is the menace that haunts bureaucrats and threatens the DFL stranglehold on its constituency of color. And the marquee reads, "This Time It's Back with a Vengeance."

A year ago, when state Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and state Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, introduced Education Access Grant legislation (vouchers for low-income families to use at any accredited private school), few legislators attended the press conference.

Last week, as point person for the Republican "Students First" initiative, Buesgens stood flanked and supported by more than a dozen Republican legislators, including House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon. He addressed not just Capitol reporters, but a room jam-packed with private school students, interested parents, movers and shakers from conservative coalitions, and a whole lot of people of color.

When David Strom, president of the Taxpayer's League, is laughing and talking strategy with Sondra Samuels, wife of Minneapolis Fifth Ward Council Member Don and an outspoken school-choice supporter, it's clear this "access grant" idea has some common ground.

Although the biggest beneficiaries of access grant legislation are inner-city families of color, in 2005 the DFL ardently opposed Hann-Buesgens. It threw support to the education establishment and its battle to keep children (and funding) in public schools. Through political maneuvering and raw political clout, the DFL successfully kept parental school choice from coming to a vote.

But despite DFL efforts, Hann-Buesgens simply wouldn't die. When legislative gridlock forced the 2005 special session, "meaningful school choice" was one of four items Gov. Tim Pawlenty put back on the table for negotiation. Unfortunately, the governor ultimately compromised immediate benefit to parents and children for the pseudo-reform of a watered-down teacher pay-for-performance plan. "Q-Comp" places greater emphasis on teacher development than on measurable student performance.

Sen. Steve Kelly, [correction "Kelley"] DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has dubbed the 2006 reincarnation of educational access grants and the GOP education package "warmed-over, rehashed proposals." A more appropriate metaphor is a Phoenix rising from the ashes of the scorching Republicans suffered in the 2005 session. Republicans are ready to fly.

Buesgens exudes far more confidence and mastery of the school choice issue this year than last, and Thursday he went on the offensive. He called school choice "the most significant, the most important education reform." When a reporter questioned reintroducing proposals that failed in 2005, an animated Buesgens said GOP reforms were being brought up again "because it's the right thing to do."

Not to be overshadowed by Buesgens' vigor was Speaker Sviggum, declaring his and the Republican Party's support for the "Students First" reform package. Sviggum worked behind the scenes supporting Hann-Buesgens in 2005. This session he's out front, publicly putting personal and party skin in the game.

"Students First" is a multi-pronged education reform package. Along with access grants, the package includes a proposal to fast-track mid-career professionals with real-world knowledge and skills into classrooms without forcing them to complete an entire teaching degree. These two actual reforms directly benefit kids and should not be compromised if Republicans are going to "walk the walk" as Buesgens promises.

Valid but less compelling are proposals prohibiting teachers from striking during the school year, tightening budget management policies for school districts and prohibiting school employees from using district funds and resources for political campaigning. Included is the governor's proposal that 70 percent of K-12 education dollars be channeled to the classroom. To enhance competitiveness in the global economy, the reform package calls for establishing a Math and Science Academy modeled after the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

This year Republicans will definitely be out in the communities of color, promoting the access grant idea, Buesgens told me. "That's where the benefit is; that's where popular support will come from," he said.

If Buesgens is right, and they finish the fight to put students ahead of bureaucracy as strongly as they've started, Republicans just might shatter the complacency of the educational status quo and the Democrats' undeserved support in communities of color. "Students First" for the DFL is one scary thought.