Biz Leaders: MN Work Force Hinges on Educ. Reform

Local business organizations argue that major changes to the state's education system are necessary for Minnesota to maintain a competitive business climate and keep companies and jobs within the state, and they see legislation now under consideration as key to making that happen.

Local business organizations are rallying behind the sweeping education bill that recently passed in the Minnesota House-but they're also advocating for some changes, saying that the future of Minnesota's competitive work force depends on legislation that addresses key deficiencies in the current education system.

The Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, advocating on behalf of members that employ thousands, both see a need for major reforms to the current system. The bill, which passed the House 68-59 early Wednesday, would dramatically change the way the state treats teachers and funds schools.

“Frankly . . . if we don't have a quality work force in Minnesota, our companies will leave,” Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver told Twin Cities Business. “For years, it's been one of the competitive advantages in this cold, Midwestern state. We have a high quality work force but that's becoming more and more at risk.”

Weaver said his organization and its 110 member businesses support numerous components of the bill-among them, increasing per-pupil funding levels, eliminating teacher tenure in favor of five-year contracts under a new teacher evaluation system that factors in student test scores, grading schools on an A through F scale and awarding extra funding to top performers, and limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Weaver said that teachers are in the “last profession in the world” that doesn't reward outstanding effort and hold poor performers accountable, adding that “our view is pay the good teachers more and get rid of the bad ones faster.”

However, Weaver-along with Minnesota Chamber and Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) leaders-was disappointed and concerned that an early education rating system was stripped from the bill. The system, which was the centerpiece of MELF's recommendations to the Legislature this year, uses standardized, evidence-based measures to rate the quality of early childhood education providers. The system was designed to go hand-in-hand with early education scholarships that would provide low-income families access to the quality rated programs. The scholarships remain in the House bill but are no longer tied to standards that measure the effectiveness of early education providers.

That fact prompted MELF to issue a statement Wednesday, indicating that it no longer supports the House bill. MELF is a bipartisan organization, and its board includes both current and former top business leaders from numerous well-known companies, including Best Buy, Taylor Corporation, Liberty Diversified International, Ecolab, UnitedHealthcare, General Mills, and Cargill. MELF raised $20 million in non-governmental money over the past five years to pilot education programs in various Minnesota communities before making its recommendations to the Legislature.

“The House did not eliminate all of those reforms because of fiscal reasons because MELF's proposals were revenue-neutral,” MELF Executive Director Duane Benson said in a statement. “It eliminated them because it apparently preferred the status quo, where 50 percent of kids are arriving at kindergarten unprepared and too many never catch up.”

Weaver and Mike Ciresi, secretary of MELF and a longtime education supporter, both vowed to reach out to legislators and Governor Mark Dayton in an effort to get the early education rating system back in the bill.

“We'll continue to buttonhole our legislators and . . . try to explain the need for this and why it's so important to the children and our state,” Ciresi, a partner at local law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, LLP, said in a Thursday phone interview. “I think the enlightened business leaders in our community . . . absolutely see the direct link between education and having sound economic development. We're all going to need educated people in our businesses.”

A specific concern that the Minnesota Business Partnership, the Minnesota Chamber, and MELF all have acknowledged is a persistent achievement gap among the state's racial groups. Weaver cites statistics indicating that Minnesota's achievement gap between white students and black students is the second-largest in the nation and that only 3 percent of black and American Indian ninth-graders will receive a bachelor's degree by age 25.

Cecilia Retelle, manager of education and labor management policy for the Minnesota Chamber, which represents about 7,500 businesses in the state, also said that nearly 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota in 2018 will require some post-secondary training.

“If we do not quickly improve our K-12 system, we will have significant unmet work force needs in the near future,” Retelle said. “Improving teacher quality is at the foundation of Minnesota developing a world-class work force.”

Weaver agrees, adding that this issue is at the forefront of business leaders' minds.

“My members are the CEOs,” Weaver said. “They get paid to look down the road. . . . What they see in terms of Minnesota's work force is frightening.”

Weaver and Ciresi both acknowledge that there are no guarantees yet in terms of the education legislation that will actually be enacted-the bill still faces significant hurdles as it must pass both the Senate, where it is now, and Dayton. But in the meantime, they won't stop making their case.

“I think what we ought to do is think about what's in the best interest of the children,” Ciresi said. “The kids are the key special interest here. At the end of the day, I just have a confidence in the people of Minnesota and their elected representatives to do what's best for their children.”