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Some signs of economic fairness emerge from session

Date Published: 07/16/2015

Author: Dane Smith

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

At a recent post-session media event for the MinneMinds coalition — a broad-based movement focused on expanding early childhood education and closing our opportunity gaps in education — one rather startling chart stood out.

The bar graph showed total public investment in pre-kindergarten learning for our littlest Minnesotans rising by healthy leaps. Counting a significant increase in funding for state scholarships for high-quality early programs, and counting other funding from federal, state and local programs, the early childhood total goes from $170 million in 2014-15 to $312 million projected in 2018-19, or an 84 percent increase.

This great news is counter-intuitive, given that the word most associated with the 2015 legislative session is “disappointing.” The conventional wisdom rests on three basic facts: Gov.  Mark Dayton didn’t achieve his laudable but expensive goal of universal pre-kindergarten access in public schools for 4-year-olds; Republicans didn’t get the big tax cuts they sought; and some $800 million of the projected $1.8 billion surplus was left “on the table.”

Most news media critiques of the session also have focused on frustration with the unusual secrecy toward the end of the special session negotiations. Minnesotans who are proud of our reputation for good governance that serves a broader prosperity can’t overlook these shortcomings.

Among the more specific obvious disappointments in the session, a record low number of bills passed including many proposals that would have helped reduce economic inequality and racial disparities. The no-go list included initiatives ranging from restoration of voting rights for those on probation to increased benefits or tax reductions for our most disadvantaged families and children.

Lawmakers failed to pass a major long-term transportation and transit funding package, despite years of consensus that one is sorely needed, for business owners as well as workers and disadvantaged Minnesotans who will benefit from more affordable mobility.

Compared to our historic progress toward equity in the 2013 and 2014 sessions, this year represents a slowdown, at the least. But as the early learning investment graph shows, 2015 was not a complete standstill. In the final product are some important and mostly unheralded provisions that are likely to build equity for low-income and middle-income families and children and reduce economic and racial disparities in Minnesota.

In addition to the early childhood funding gains, here are some other important fronts where progress was made on an equity agenda for Minnesota.

Workforce equity

Funding for career pathway programs (basic skills instruction, job training and support services) more than tripled, to $11.3 million. Outcome reporting and the evaluation process for workforce training programs were expanded and improved.

First steps were taken toward a revision of remediation requirements, led by Minnesota Students for Education Reform, reducing barriers to degree completion for students of color. Also, a variety of policies that give disadvantaged high school students early college credits were expanded, thanks to persistent efforts by the Center for School Change.  Our Capitol Report op-ed in April urged lawmakers to make these workforce policy changes a higher priority.

Higher education goal set

Champions for educational equity have been urging Minnesota to set a long-term higher-education goal and to reduce racial disparities in attainment for nearly a decade, and this persistence has paid off.

New language in state law sets a goal for the portion of Minnesota residents between ages 25 and 44 who hold a post-secondary certificate or degree to reach 70 percent by the year 2025 and to keep track of progress toward that goal by communities of color. (The current attainment percentage for this age group in Minnesota is estimated at between 50 percent and 60 percent, depending on what counts as post-secondary completion.)

Rural and urban education partnerships

New local community partnerships are emerging statewide that focus holistically on reducing educational disparities and improving student success. A coalition of greater Minnesota partnerships (in Red Wing, St. Cloud, and Northfield), along with advocates from Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, secured $5.8 million to sustain and expand these community partnerships.

Our Capitol Report commentary late in the session pushed urban-rural partnership funding as a compromise in the deadlocked education bill.

American Indian student investment

The Star Tribune’s investigative series exposing neglect of American Indian education — urban and rural — helped produce $18 million in new funding for our Indian students, whether they are in public schools or tribal schools. The newspaper’s editorial praise of the legislation notes that much of the new funding will expand a proven program known as “Success for the Future,” to every school serving 20 or more Indian students.

Housing and the homeless

Advocates working for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless helped secure a $13 million boost for housing and homeless services: in total, the broader range of priorities sought by the Homes for All coalition will receive $24 million more in 2016-2017 than the last budget cycle. New funds will help thousands of Minnesotans access safe, stable, affordable housing.

Long-term care pay hike serves workforce equity

Minnesota long-term care workers won a battle for a new rate system that invests an additional $138 million over the next two years. The Service Employees International Union, which serves those workers, has described the increase as a “historic victory” that will significantly increase the compensation for thousands of historically underpaid workers.

Perhaps the most important silver lining was a subtle but historic shift in the center of gravity on early childhood investment, and on the larger underlying question about whether we should even attempt with our public money and public policy to reduce economic inequality and racial disparity.
In contrast to previous years, House Republicans and conservative legislators were actually arguing strongly and publicly FOR the early childhood scholarship model,  as opposed to Dayton’s  universal public school provision, but effectively shifting the debate from “whether” to “how” we put our money in to this evidence-tested equity investment.

The 2015 experience reminds us of Martin Luther’s King’s timeless wisdom about the “arc of the moral universe” being long and progress seemingly slow, but bending inevitably toward justice. Sometimes we take giant strides forward, then we get pushed back or, or pause or take smaller steps. We can be reasonably confident Minnesota will do better in coming sessions for the cause of equity and investing in all our human potential.

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A version of this column orriginally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 16, 2015


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