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Gov. Walz announces education plan aimed at eliminating disparities

The plan covers seven categories, including closing the racial education gap and improving opportunities in rural Minnesota

The Governor's Office on Monday announced a "sweeping" education policy agenda aimed at addressing some of the state's most pressing issues, such as student mental health, diversity within school staff and racial and geographic inequities. 

The plan, dubbed "Due North," was formed over the past few months with guidance from the "Governor's Education Roundtable" — a group of 22 professionals in teaching, education policy and school finance, including former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and representatives from the statewide teacher's union Education Minnesota and the Minnesota Youth Council. It will be implemented in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Education's strategic plan. 

"If we as as state do not look directly in the mirror and address the racial inequities and systemic racism, we may not get another shot. This is our shot, and it starts with education," Gov. Tim Walz said.  

Walz has not disclosed cost estimates, and said more details on the logistics of the plan, such as which parts require approval from the state Legislature, will be revealed along with his budget plan Tuesday. 

A two-page overview of the plan is available to view as a PDF on the Minnesota Department of Education website

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Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said the plan addresses issues the union has been emphasizing: support for teachers, including a commitment to recruiting and retaining teachers of color; more mental health support for students struggling to process mass unemployment, illness, isolation and the police killing of George Floyd, expanding academic opportunities in a "local, flexible way" to help students catch up from the disruption of the pandemic. 

"A more incremental plan would be simple easy, cheap — and wrong," Specht said. "Our students need all of us to confront underfunding and racism, and take the many necessary steps right now to transform our schools so that they work for everyone."

Nonetheless, the lack of detail to accompany with the announcement drew criticism from some Republican legislators whose votes will be required to pass it, though Walz signaled 

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said that Monday's announcing was "not meant to be a comprehensive education plan," but rather a "headline and message for a good news cycle."

Mental health and recovering from the pandemic

Efforts to boost mental health include redesigning summer programming so that it shifts away from a "remediation" look and towards "enrichment" to "ensure that students are on grade-level and have access to what they need," Minnesota Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller said.

That focus on mental health is meant to continue throughout the year. 

"We need to look at our year this year much differently than we have before," Walz said. "We have to recover from covid, and then launch into what comes next. They're not mutually exclusive. They'll build on each other." 

Racial and geographic equity

Monday's overview indicates changes to curriculum, funding and hiring practices to create more equitable, inclusive learning environments. 

To examine and address the impact of systemic racism on Minnesota's schools, the Minnesota Department of Education will create a new Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Center, which is set to announce its director within a few weeks, Mueller said. 

"When you think about the failures of the system today, they have been systemic and structural. This plan looks at the structure. It acknowledges those failures, and moves us in a direction to bring about real change," Page said during a press conference Monday. "This plan puts children first. And by putting children first; making sure that individual children are prepared for the future, we put Minnesota first. We create opportunities that don't exist today for all of us, not just for those young children." 

In addition to committing to improving how schools recruit and retain teachers of color, the plan also includes anti-bias training for staff, revamping curriculum to "ensure students receive an accurate history of Minnesota's Indigenous people," and adjusting academic standards to meet workforce needs and to be "reflective of students of color and Indigenous students." 

To address geographic disparities, the plan calls for reforming school finance, adding advanced coursework opportunities such as AP Classes and technical career pathways to rural high schools, and increasing the "full-service community school model" statewide. 

“Due North is about giving students of color the freedom to attend a school that employers educators who look like them, provide services that meet their needs, and offers lessons in which they will see themselves," Specht said. "For white students, this plan represents freedom from an incomplete education. When the contributions of whole groups of people are omitted from the curriculum, when the legacy of racism is ignored, we are not teaching our students the whole story of our nation. If Minnesota is to prepare our students for a multicultural, multiracial future, it's time to provide schools with the resources they need to get the job done.” 

Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls), the GOP lead on the House Education Finance Committee, signaled his opposition even before the nuts and bolts of the plan have been released to the general public.

In a statement, he claims that the governor's plan would involve "indoctrinating students with messages that focus on our country's flaws," saying this "won't help increase math scores."

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