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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Pawlenty's education plan

Let's take a look at Governor Pawlenty's education plan, which was unveiled today. It follows a blueprint that is quickly becoming the norm for his programs: maintain the status quo while touting some peripheral new initiative as "reform."

First, the status quo. Pawlenty proposes raising funding by two percent a year for two years. This will put almost $300 million into the budget. However, when you factor inflation into things, and unlike the state government, schools can't legislate inflation away, this means schools will be either staying in place, or more likely falling even more behind.

Now, for the fake "reform." Pawlenty is pushing $60 million for districts that institute a merit-pay system for teachers. Those districts that do so, however, would have to entirely give up the current "steps and lanes" pay structure. Now, I am all for merit pay for teachers. It only makes sense to put some kind of market force into schools to weed out the bad teachers, and there are enough of them. But I have yet to find a way to measure success in an objective way. Test scores? Teaching to the test is already a huge problem, and the last thing our country needs are people who are adept at taking tests but have no practical knowledge otherwise. Student behaviour? How do you control for the fact that behaviour depends far more on things entirely outside the teacher's control, like home environment, than what happens in the classroom. Academic improvement? Well, improvement will be very different between taking a class of gifted kids and pushing them further, and taking a group of students who are slipping and starting to turn them around, but both are valuable. Furthermore, measuring that improvement is once again tricky.

Just about the only thing that may work is basing pay on parent and principal feedback, much like the rest of the business world. But that is completely subjective, not objective, and that doesn't seem to be what people want. Granted, getting an additional degree or taking additional classes don't necessarily make for a better teacher, but I don't know what else could work.

Finally, the bonus: since Pawlenty must realize that this low amount of money is inadequate, he is allowing school districts to increase property tax levies for things that should be paid for by the state, like special education. So, if schools want to get more funding, they would have to raise property taxes. Not only does this go counter to Pawlenty's "no new taxes" pledge, but it rolls back the great property tax reform of 2001, which was meant to take education funding off of the unfair property tax and shift it to other state taxes.

Once again, Pawlenty's pledge to the anti-government wingnuts has boxed him into a corner. Our schools deserve better.

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