Dane Smith on Smart Investments for Minnesota Students

Dane Smith, the president of Growth and Justice a local Minnesota think-tank, spoke to the Twin Cities Chapter of the IEEE Education Society on Friday. The event was held at the Bakken Museum on Lake Calhoun.

Mr. Smith began by laying out the assumptions made by Growth and Justice when considering education policy in Minnesota. Like many think-tank presidents he describe the mission of Growth and Justice as being bipartisan, neither conservative nor liberal. He believes, and so does his organization, that government can be a force for good in the community. Government investment in human capital can have a beneficial effect on the future. Smith contrasted this with the conservative view of Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and his oft-quoted message that government needs to be shrunk and then drowned in a bath tub.

To burnish his conservative credentials Smith said that Growth and Justice doesn’t oppose business reflexively, as some liberal groups do. Growth and Justice has worked with business groups to call for a reduction in corporate taxes in Minnesota and to support transportation investment.

Given this background Smith described the report Smart Investments in Minnesota Students which was completed at the end of 2008. The goal of the report was to “Develop a progressive policy agenda that defines successful education outcomes, identifies who should be accountable for those outcomes, and shows how to improve educational results for Minnesotans, from early childhood through post-secondary study.” To accomplish this the organization partnered with nationally recognized education scholars to find positive education interventions that are supported by sound research, with the ultimate hope of increasing higher education attainment fifty percent by 2020.

Currently education is the largest state budget expenditure, accounting for almost half of the state outlays. The bulk of that money goes to salaries and compensation. Growth and Justice estimates that $1 billion has been cut from the education budgets across the state over the last 10 years since Jesse Ventura became governor. A study by the Minnesota Department of Revenue supports Smith’s claim that the Minnesota tax system has become more regressive over the last decade. The lowest income decile pays an effective tax rate of 14.9% where the top decile only pays 10.3%. If the tax reforms of the past 10 years were rolled back then an additional $2 billion dollars in revenue would be gained. Half of that would lead to the $1 billion proposal for education.

The education spending proposed by Growth and Justice divides into three parts: the early years of infancy through kindergarden and elementary education, higher education preparation in middle and high school, and the launch into life assistance for students moving into post-secondary education. Approximately $400 million would be spent on early intervention, $255 million on school-age intervention, and the final $340 million on the transition to post-secondary education.

For early intervention they propose nurse home visit programs, expanding child care access, social skills training, quality half-day preschool, class size reduction, and intensive focus on early skills acquistion. School age reforms would be more rigorous coursework, intensive tutoring, in- and out-of-school social support like mentoring, college prep curriculums, more parental involvement, and increased student counseling. The transition to post-secondary education would mean an increase in counseling services, teen pregnancy and dropout prevention, and need-based aid for higher education.

I was particularly surprised to hear that Minnesota now has the third lowest number of counselors per high-school student in the nation. I guess things change a lot over time. Overall I thought Mr. Smith gave a reasonable and cogent presentation about the difficulties facing Minnesota education and some of the reasonable reforms that might improve things.

The biggest barrier to change remains Tim Pawlenty and his no-new-taxes pledge. The effective tax rate in Minnesota has declined over the past decade but the economic boom promised by the conservatives has failed to materialize. We know what doesn’t work, now we just need to have the courage to try something different.