Walz introduces schools plan; GOP critics say it’s more of the same

By: - January 25, 2021 4:58 pm

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. File photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday unveiled a schools plan that focuses on improving educational equity for students of color, the recruiting and retaining Indigenous teachers and teachers of color, as well as offering more rigorous courses in rural Minnesota. 

The plan, called “Due North,” arises a day before Walz is expected to outline his proposal for a new two-year budget. The plan introduced Monday is expected to raise education spending even amid an expected budget deficit, though he declined to specify the increase.

Walz, a former teacher, said that when he took office, he had planned to focus on addressing the large opportunity gaps in Minnesota education, where stubborn racial disparities have long persisted. 

The first-term Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor is likely to face resistance from the Republican-controlled Senate, which has already signaled budget cuts and a hard line against tax increases. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, is a champion of tax credits to help underprivileged children attend private schools, including religious schools. 

State Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, Republican lead on the House schools committee, said Walz’s proposal should be called “Do nothing” instead of “Due North.” He called it “heavy on talking points,” but lacking reforms needed to raise academic achievement. “This plan is crafted by organizations that have obstructed progress and choices for students and families, and is a recipe for failure,” he said, referring to Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state had struggled to provide equitable education to all students, leading retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari to propose a constitutional amendment intended to benefit students of color by guaranteeing a right to an equal education.

“Our education system over the past decades has failed to educate far too many children,” said Page, who joined Walz at the news conference. “This Due North plan is an important first step in changing that.”

The pandemic has laid bare the deep racial inequities that have long plagued Minnesota. The families of students of color are more likely to lack access to broadband internet and struggle to find childcare, while their children struggle with distance learning. The uneven impact of job losses has also disproportionately harmed women, particularly those of color.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, joined Walz at the event. The union, which opposes the Page-Kashkari constitutional amendment, said Walz’s plan is comprehensive in its scope. 

“This is an ambitious plan,” she said. “A more incremental plan would be easy, cheap and wrong.”

The governor’s office provided few specifics on Monday, releasing only a two-page briefing.  

Pressed on how much the plan would cost, Walz demurred. 

Among the proposals is the creation of an “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Center” at the Minnesota Department of Education; teaching the “accurate history of Minnesota’s Indigenous people”; and anti-bias training for all school staff.

Walz is also proposing more money for schools to offset a recent drop in student enrollment as parents have chosen to homeschool or enroll their kids in private school.

The plan also proposes to diversify the mostly-white teaching workforce by expanding educator career pathway programs; launching a statewide mentor program to support the retention of teachers; and, focusing on recruitment and retention of teachers of color and Indigenous teachers.

For students in rural Minnesota, where Walz taught high school geography for about a decade, Walz wants more access to rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate courses, which allow students to get a head start on college-level credit.

The Legislature has until June 30 to pass a new two-year budget and also close a $883 million budget deficit, assuming the current biennium’s surplus is left unspent. Lawmakers are in session through mid May and would have to be called into special session if no deal is reached on a balanced budget.

About 40% of the state’s overall general fund budget is dedicated to education, or about $10 billion annually.  

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