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Candidate Q&A: Minnesota House District 27B

Author’s note: This is a continuation of the Herald’s candidate Q&A features and the third such feature with State Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B) and challenger Patricia Mueller (R). In this feature, the candidates were asked questions about education.

Here are their responses.

1. Do you believe an opportunity gap exists in Minnesota education?

Poppe: Article XIII, Section 1 of the Minnesota constitution states, “It is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

We may have a “general and uniform system”; however, there are a number of indicators which tell us we do not have an equitable education system. Equity comes when resources are dispensed to better match the need or supply the resources which brings the service level, as measured by certain outcomes, to a more equal status. Do students all get the same opportunities? No. Do schools all have the same access to resources? No.

Students and schools can be separated by a number of categories including, but not limited to, race, geography, population size, tax base, language barriers of students or parents, physical distance to the school and access to broadband. Some societal factors like poverty, which are evident by inadequate housing, food insecurity, lack of health care access, or minimal transportation options, can all result in less accessibility to the world-class education each Minnesota child deserves.

There are opportunity gaps in Minnesota education. In every part of the state we can see the impacts from inadequate funds. COVID-19 has shown us more clearly what and where those gaps are.

Mueller: Yes. There are many families who do not have access to a quality education because of where they live, which is most evident in the education funding imbalance we see between metro and rural districts in our state.

Not only do we need to implement more balanced funding, but we also need to empower parents to choose a school that best addresses their student’s individual needs.

As a 17-year educator, I find it ironic that Education Minnesota emphasizes differentiation of instruction for our students because each child is unique, but the idea of school choice – the ultimate way to individualize education – is often demonized. School choice would allow families, especially those in low-income areas, a way to go to schools that are more effective and provide quality education. No profession can exist for 150 years and not innovate. While schools have been modernized with technology and teachers work tirelessly to use best practices in the classroom, this is a vital time to examine what and how we teach to provide educational opportunities for students that meet the changing demands of the workforce.

2. What, if anything, would you like to see changed in Minnesota’s current curriculum standards?

Poppe: The school day is only so long! Years of adding requirements for students to learn and understand has meant those few hours are filled with appropriate subject areas, but leaves less opportunity to pursue “passion” subjects like art, music, theater, welding, agriculture, etc. Over the past few years, I have authored bills to provide funding for schools to offer elective courses “after” school or on Saturday mornings for students who wish to take some courses which they cannot fit into their school day. I have also been a co-author on bills to support more career/tech education electives, allowing students to gain practical, purposeful training.

I appreciate we need fundamental subject areas to be covered, and every new idea coming forward deserves consideration, but we must also allow our school boards (duly elected community representatives) to make curriculum decisions which might be more suited to their school district and their students. Students are not robots that all respond the same. If given more ability to customize learning, we may see more engagement by students who previously felt marginalized leading to truancy or dropping out.

There are many challenges facing school administrators, school board members, teachers and parents. During these especially trying times, we want our children and teachers to feel safe and supported. The best of intentions to “improve” or “enhance” curriculum standards can lead to more requirements for our students, teachers and school districts. We need to consider the consequences for making changes.

Mueller: The public-school curriculum is not an appropriate place to push through any agenda of a particular group, like the Comprehensive Sex Education plan. Rather, schools should be focused on providing students with skills that emphasize critical thinking, authentic experiences, and innovation so that students can tackle the complex problems in the coming years. We must have educators and employers working together to deliver out of the box solutions for students so they can be prepared for the challenges they will encounter. One of those fantastic solutions created by Austin Public Schools is the CEO program that brings students interested in business together with local businessmen and businesswomen. We need more of these types of programs that deliver authentic learning and community development, which is so vital to rural Minnesota.

3. How should schools address the increase in mental health problems among Minnesota students?

Poppe: Historically, Minnesota ranks near the bottom among states in student-to-counselor ratio. The National School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor. A single counselor in Minnesota is responsible for an average of more than 600 students. Many small schools do not even have a counselor. I spent more than 20 years as a college counselor at Riverland Community College and can tell you the needs and experiences of our students have changed. In recent years it has become more common to have students with diagnosed mental health problems. Stress, anxiety and depression are all more evident and factor into learning challenges for these students. Suicide is not uncommon in older teens and young adults.

Minnesota should be doing more to fund support services for students. Licensed school counselors and/or social workers should be available in every school district. Teachers are hired to teach one or more subject areas, administrators are expected to keep the school running efficiently and safely, janitors and cooks keep the buildings sanitized and the students fed. Although they may see something not quite right, they do not have the knowledge and education to provide the support and assistance many students need. Adding personnel to a school’s budget can be very challenging, so providing additional funding to schools for mental health support services is something the legislature should be doing.

Mueller: As an educator for the past 17 years, I have witnessed the devastating effects of mental health problems on our students. Teachers are often on the front lines of this battle as they build relationships with their students. While the success of mental health programs is not only measured by the amount of funding, I do know that funding is needed.

I also know that we must intentionally combat the stigma of mental health and the isolation that accompanies that stigma because isolation is prevalent and deadly. The best use of funding targets programs that not only educate, but also build community within and outside the school system.

In 2018, I was a part of a community action committee that worked to start a mentorship program for at-risk students. Mentorship intentionally supports young people by building skills that help them connect and strengthen relationships with the goal of bringing a sense of purpose and belonging. Funding for mentorship programs that have proven success should be our first priority. This would naturally invite cooperation and unity with community efforts.  When we build community, we can better address mental health problems as they change from year to year.

4. Do you believe Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-1 School Year is an effective response to addressing educational concerns during the coronavirus pandemic?

Poppe: Nobody wants to be in a global pandemic, and no one could have predicted how severely COVID-19 has impacted our ability to function.

I fully support the guidance outlined by Gov.Walz and his administration allowing local school districts to make plans according to the needs and abilities within the local school district.  Responding to this unprecedented experience has been the challenge of a generation. I know the learning plans are difficult to maneuver for parents, but certainly also for teachers and administrators. It has to be extremely unsettling to try to determine how to best meet your child’s needs.

Mueller: I empathize with the school districts and their administrators because, while Gov. Walz said decisions would be left to the local districts, these schools are weighed down with compliance. No one wants to see a child get sick and no one wants teachers to be put in a dangerous situation. And no one, outside of parents, will work more passionately to provide a safe and fun classroom like a teacher.

Yet, because the mandates are by county, schools with fewer than 10 cases in their town still must comply with stricter and more severe standards set by schools with more cases in their town simply because they are in the same county. Gov. Walz was once our representative in Southern Minnesota. He knows first hand that our communities are far different than those in the metro. Our local districts can be trusted to consider the guidelines by the State and make the best decision for their students and staff regarding educational concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

5. Anything else you want to add?

Poppe: COVID-19 has certainly created havoc in so many realms. Our educational systems are challenged, but fortunately they have responded with flexibility and capability. We all can benefit from working on resiliency strategies. Taking large issues and reducing them into smaller, more manageable issues to work through.

Acknowledge the challenges, be kind to ourselves, our neighbors, and those who teach our children, ask for help when you need it, and do what you can to remember this is a temporary situation. Although we won’t know how long we are to experience this pandemic and its effects, we are in it together.

Mueller: In the past 17 years, I have had the privilege of educating hundreds of children and working alongside some of the most dedicated teachers in the profession. Teaching is an amazingly rewarding career filled with heartbreak and sheer joy. I am so passionate about teaching the next generation because we know that education is the key to success and the great equalizer. It is imperative that we are not apathetic about this and that the community is involved.

It is time to truly evaluate what our goals are for education so that students have multiple options and avenues to develop their talents and follow their passions. This requires having difficult conversations about what school looks like and rejecting the notion of doing it “the way it’s always been done.” Education spending accounts for 40 percent of our state budget; let’s make sure that money reaches the people who actually teach students and put it where it will make the most impact.