The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 22, 2013

Lawmakers cite economic reasons for closing achievement gap

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Lawmakers clearly see an ethical responsibility to lower the achievement gap for minorities and children in poverty. But there’s also an economic argument for wider society.

Rep. Paul Marquart, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, and Mankato Rep. Kathy Brynaert stopped by the Intergovernmental Center Friday to talk to local officials about their party’s priorities for education spending.

Closing that achievement gap tops the list.

Citing a report from McKinsey & Company, Marquart said the achievement gap causes a loss of $1.3 trillion every year in the national gross domestic product. By comparison, $1 trillion was lost in the recent recession.

Marquart, a DFLer who represents northwestern Minnesota, and Brynaert, a DFLer and former Mankato School Board member, see all-day kintergarten and early childhood education as one way to close the achievement gap.

Though both measures benefit all students, they said studies show that lower-performing children get the most benefit and have more chances to catch up to their peers if they get started early.

The Mankato area’s early-childhood efforts, including the Greater Mankato Early Learning Initiative, have increased the number of children who are deemed ready for kintergarten from 44 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2012.

Raising education funding in general is another goal: Marquart said the state has slipped to 22nd place. Partly because of that slip, school districts have begun to rely more heavily on local property taxes.

There’s now a 31 percent gap between the richest 5 percent and poorest 5 percent of districts, a percentage that has increased by 66 percent in the past 10 years.

“We’re starting to rely a little bit more on your zip code for the educational opportunities that you have,” Marquart said.

There was also some discussion about wider education priorities this session, including whether the Legislature should speed up its $800 million in delayed payments to schools.

Kory Kath, Mankato East High School assistant principal and a former legislator, said the shift can be paid back over multiple bienniums. New money should be spent on new initiatives, not paying back the IOUs, he said.

Democratic leaders have agreed: The money they want to use to pay back the shift will come from a separate fund, and therefore won’t compete with hoped-for new initiatives such as statewide all-day kindergarten.