Brenda Cassellius is the Gov. Mark Dayton’s commissioner of education
When Gov. Mark Dayton and I took office in 2011, Minnesota faced a $6 billion shortfall, and the state's public schools had weathered more than a decade of inconsistent funding and even outright funding cuts. Graduation rates were stagnant, full-day kindergarten was only a dream, and public preschool options were limited or nonexistent.
As we prepare to leave office in January, Minnesota has regained its financial footing, paid back more than $2 billion in school shifts that had been used to balance the state budget, and our public schools have benefited from the governor's promise kept to increase school funding every year, "no excuses, no exceptions." Our graduation rates are the highest they've ever been, 99.6 percent of school districts offer full-day kindergarten, and more than 35,000 young children have attended or are attending high-quality preschool in a variety of settings.
During former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's visit to Minnesota early in my tenure as commissioner, he commended Minnesota on its overall success in student achievement and high academic rank among states. But he chastened us for what he characterized as a "lack of urgency" in addressing the disparate academic outcomes for students of color, students with disabilities and students of economic disadvantage.
He was right.
A 7-Point foundation
For far too long, Minnesotans had enjoyed a false sense of security about how we serve students. Our overall high achievement masked some of the troubling disparities that lurked under the surface that were the results of historical inequities and systemic barriers in our education system. In order to begin dismantling barriers and create more equity in our schools, we needed to build a foundation that would help educators and schools move quickly with the least constraint possible.
That is what we did. Using the 7-Point Plan for Better Schools as the lens through which we viewed our work, we focused on opportunities to create more equitable funding that targets the unique needs of students and schools.
We now provide more support and professional assistance to schools that need it most. We offer more high-quality early learning opportunities to our littlest Minnesotans, and we have transformed the Minnesota Department of Education from a compliance and regulatory agency to one that is focused on working alongside schools to help them better serve students.
The results are too numerous to mention in one column, but include more support for students learning English, a historic package of support for schools serving American Indian students, enhanced funding for schools with the most diverse student populations. They include more support for schools serving our poorest students, and more equitable funding for schools across the state. Between 2002 and 2010, the funding-equity gap between schools grew by 49 percent, which affected the quality of education for kids, based on their ZIP codes. Under Dayton's leadership, we enacted reforms to reduce that disparity by 23 percent, provided increased per pupil funding for greater Minnesota schools by $2,562, and enacted a tax credit that gives farmers needed tax relief while providing rural schools with critical resources to improve their facilities.
Little known and underappreciated, these results mean a great deal to the students in our classrooms, the ones who in a few short years will be entering the workforce, leading our communities and running for office. They don't capture headlines or get a lot of fanfare, but taken together, they are a clear signal that for the past eight years, Minnesota's leaders have had their backs.
Is there more to be done? Of course there is.
Disparate outcomes among students of color, American Indian students and students from poor families continue to plague us. While we've increased and targeted resources to schools, we still haven't fully funded them or made it easier to understand how we do so. While we've significantly expanded early learning, too many programs are scheduled to sunset and too many children still don't have the chance to attend preschool at all.
Yet, I am confident that the foundation we've laid and the conversations around equity we've engaged in will serve our state well in the coming years.
Gov.-elect Walz and Lt. Gov.-elect Flanagan are already taking the lead in deepening Minnesota's commitment to provide a world-class education for every child, no matter who they are, where they live or their economic circumstance.
None of us does this work alone and it will require all hands on deck. I look forward to doing my part to ensure Governor Dayton's legacy as a champion for students, teachers and schools lives on long after his time in office is done.