Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Emerging Issue. One education issue that will soon be coming into the discussion at the State Capitol is that of the creation of an independent entity to provide research for legislators and other policy makers as they develop initiatives to meet the state's education needs. Given the presence of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), there are those who believe the creation of such a center would be redundant and an unwise investment given the state's budget woes.

This proposal should be discussed and the simple presence of MDE shouldn't dismiss the importance of the creation of this proposed research center. There are a variety of good-sense reasons why this proposal deserves consideration. The first lies in the fact that the Education Commissioner has been a political appointee for the past 25 years. This role has been filled by a number of exemplary people, incuding current Commissioner Alice Seagren, but it's not the person that's the problem. The problem is that politicization of education has pretty much become unavoidable and instead of providing balanced information on the pros and cons of proposed policies, MDE is thrust into the uncomfortable, and I would argue inappropriate, position of having to promote the policies of various governors instead of formulating policy based on best practices. Again, it's not the particular policies that have been promoted--there have been a number of great policies promoted by each of the four governors who have operated under the appointed-commissioner framework--it's that the policies take on a political flavoring whether or not they are overtly political and education policy debates become ping-pong matches between the executive and legislative branches.

Second, MDE is woefully understaffed given the current needs of Minnesota's school districts. It pains me to say this. I have worked closely with a number of top-notch MDE employees in my various roles in education policy development and implementation and I have the utmost respect for the talent and dedication of the personnel at MDE. The simple fact of the matter is, however, that almost twenty years of personnel reductions have put a significant crimp in MDE's research and policy development roles. There have been countless penny-wise and pound-foolish staff cuts at MDE since 1991 when the unfortunate trend began with a 20% cut of the department's budget. That will continue this year as the budget is reconciled. Right now, there are so many empty cubicles at the Department that I feel like I'm on the set of a Left Behind movie when I'm over there.

There will be several research center proposals coming forward this year. The Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD) has been working on one and that will be introduced shortly. Their proposal calls not only for a center that would conduct research, but that would also provide staff development and other assistance to districts.

The second proposal comes from the University of Minnesota, which will be advocating that a new center be established in the College of Education and Human Development. The University's proposal has some innate strengths, seeing that a staff of PhDs and PhD students are already there and they often have their finger on the pulse of the latest developments in trends in education policy.

A third proposal may also be taking shape. Several State Senators have mentioned the possibility of creating a legislative commission on education policy that would seek foundation money until state resources become available to fund a center that would distribute grant dollars to public and private agencies that would perform research on topics in education policy.

Each of these approaches would have strengths and weaknesses and hopefully, if the establishment of such a center is pursued, and effort will be made to create a center that combines the best of each proposal.

None of these proposals has been formally introduced at this point and I will provide you all with details once they are. This should be an interesting discussion.

StarTribune editorial on Education Research Center:

See you at the MSBA Convention. The big doings at the Minneapolis Convention Center tomorrow will be the MSBA's annual convention and I can hardly wait to see a lot of you there. The camera battery is fully charged and the voice recorder is ready to go. I'm just looking for interesting subjects to photo and interview. So if you see me and don't want to be featured run. . . very fast.

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