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School reform leads priorities

ST. PAUL - Minnesota high schools would need to perform better under a set of reforms Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled Wednesday during his fifth State of the State address.

"We're not just going to pay for good intentions anymore," Pawlenty told a packed House chamber. "We're going to pay for better performance as part of a new 'Successful Schools' initiative."

The governor proposed increasing school funding by 2 percent each of the next two years, with the possibility of doubling it if a school earns at least three out of a possible five stars on the state school report card.

"We need to pay for performance and quit enabling schools that don't meet our expectations," he said. "American high schools are obsolete."

Schools that agree to accept new state standards for "rigor, relevance and results" would receive extra funding. Among things schools would be required to do are:

-- Implement more rigorous courses, including career and technical classes in high-demand fields.

-- Require every student to complete a year of college while still in high school.

-- Provide students with the chance to learn through internships and other jobs.

The high school proposal highlighted his annual speech, delivered to a full House chamber that included most of Minnesota's 201 legislators, a couple of former governors and other political leaders.

Speaking under a giant portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, Pawlenty said he has four main goals for this four-year term, his second. He said he wants to improve education, health care, energy and government.

The Republican governor, for the first time forced with work with a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party-controlled Legislature, has talked for months about the need to reform high schools. Wednesday's speech was the first time he gave any details.

"Too many of our high school students are engaged in academic loitering for much of their high school career," Pawlenty said.

"In too many cases, our high school students are bored, checked-out, coasting, not even vaguely aware of their post-high school plans - if they have any - and they are just marking time."

The rigorous, relevant and results-oriented high schools - which Pawlenty called "3R schools" - would cost $75 million of state money.

Reaction was mixed to Pawlenty's proposals.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, who chairs a Senate education committee, said he liked Pawlenty's call for 2 percent increases. As for the additional 2 percent districts would be eligible for under the governor's plan, Stumpf said he needs more information on the proposal.

"Stand by," the Plummer Democrat said, referring to upcoming budget announcements.

Stumpf added that many schools won't have a crack at three-star funding outlined under the Pawlenty proposal.

Some lawmakers said high school is too late for reform.

Freshman DFL Rep. Marsha Swails, a Woodbury high school teacher, said she is "all in favor of rigor," but had a lukewarm reaction to some of the governor's proposals.

The governor wants the Legislature to require all students to complete four years of foreign language courses in order to graduate, but Swails said lawmakers must consider whether that would limit students' ability to explore other areas, such as music or arts.

"What would that eliminate?" she wondered.

It may be more effective to teach students a foreign language at younger ages, she added.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, wondered whether Pawlenty's foreign language requirement could require longer school days.

Pawlenty said he wants every high school to be a 3R school. "But even if they choose not to, all high schools will still be required to make other changes."

Another change the governor wants is to require adopting tougher math standards for all students.

Pawlenty, 46, also said he will encourage schools to use more online and other technology-related tools. He promised his budget plan will include money to reach the goal.

After meeting resistance to a plan to offer high-performing students free tuition at public colleges and universities, he revised it in his speech Wednesday to allow any student who finished a year of college while in high school to get money to pay for tuition and fees while taking classes on campus.

He also resurrected a failed proposal to require at least 70 percent of school funding be spent in the classroom.

All-day, every-day kindergarten that many lawmakers propose would cost $230 million, Pawlenty said. That, he added, is too much.

However, the governor instead proposed paying up to $4,000 tuition for a family to send an at-risk child to a certified kindergarten readiness program.

Pawlenty and the Legislature shouldn't limit education reform to high school, Urdahl said.

"I think, realistically, some of these reforms belong in the middle school," said Urdahl, a retired teacher. He added that many students' academic patterns are set in middle school, possibly making reform in high school less effective.

At first glance, the governor's early childhood proposals stand the best chance of passage in the DFL-controlled Legislature, said Urdahl, who serves on the House E-12 Education Policy Committee.

Urdahl called Pawlenty's plan to offer to pay for pre-kindergarten students to school a compromise.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, wants a more comprehensive all-day, every-day kindergarten plan than Pawlenty offered. All children should be included in such a plan, he added.

Rural Minnesotans have fewer kindergarten readiness programs available, so they would be less likely to take advantage of the $4,000 tuition aid, Juhnke said.

State Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, said she supports Pawlenty's call to make math standards tougher.

A former school board member, Wollschlager said she also agrees with the need to promote foreign language learning, but called a four-year requirement "pretty strenuous."

An element of Pawlenty's "3R Schools" proposal could be problematic, Wollschlager cautioned. High schools that want additional state aid must meet several requirements, including that all students must complete one year of college courses before they graduate.

Wollschlager said that could be tough for some rural schools that aren't located near a college campus and don't yet offer a broad range of college-level courses at their school.

"You've got to look at implementation and how to do it," she said.

Parts of the governor's education reform sounded "pretty good" to Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook. But others - like pay-for-performance requirements - left him concerned.

The problem, Skoe said, is that the measures would leave rural school districts at a disadvantage.

"We'll have to figure out a way to work through some of that," he said.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, agreed.

"It was very clear that this was not a pro-rural agenda," he said.

Like Skoe, Eken approved of some of the reforms offered by the governor. But as for the requirement that 70 percent of school funding be spent in classrooms, Eken said Pawlenty isn't telling the whole story.

Much of the money Pawlenty considers administrative actually goes toward students, Eken said. That, he said, includes heat, electricity, librarians and libraries.

"It really leaves a false impression that money is being wasted on education," Eken said.

Pawlenty's education proposal also calls for greater attention on early childhood learning. He is requesting an early childhood scholarship fund for at-risk students.

That pleased Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, but said she would prefer to have seen similar incentives drawn into higher education.

For a state representative at his first State of the State speech, DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township was impressed with the pageantry. However, he was less impressed with Pawlenty's seemingly top-down education decisions.

Education changes should be a state-local partnership, he said, not something ordered by the state.

Each 450 of the state's school districts are different, Anzelc said, and should not be handed the same rules.

It was Rep. Mike Jaros' 31st State of the State speech and he thought it sounded pretty good.

The Duluth Democrat said he was glad Pawlenty discussed real problems, such as those with education.

High schools need to be reformed, Jaros said, and Pawlenty's proposal is a good start, once it is aired out.

"I would hope we don't rush into it," Jaros said.

"I agree with him that high school needs to become more than ... sports and socializing," he added.

Jaros said he likes the idea behind the Eastern European schools he attended. They prepared students for work or college, while American schools often don't do a good job getting students ready for work.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said he thinks the state should increase aid 4 percentage points each of the next two years, instead of 2 percent for all schools and another 2 percent for those who meet higher standards.

"That's too light," agreed Rep. Paul Marquart, DLF-Dilworth.

Marquart suggested 3 percent state increases each year for education, which would add $450 million in the next two-year budget.

He added that he was concerned that Pawlenty left the impression that today's education is not linked to achievement. Pawlenty often says education, and other programs, must be funded based on achievement.

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said Pawlenty's education proposals are not ready for prime time.

He said all kindergartners need to attend school all day, every day. Pawlenty said that is too expensive.

Vickerman, a former county commissioner, was concerned about Pawlenty trying to take over what needs to be local control.

"Let's not micromanage the schools," he said, adding that requiring 70 percent of education funding to be spent in classrooms should not be a state mandate.

Scott Wente and Mike Longaecker contributed to this story. Davis, Wente and Longaecker work for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.