An education plan unveiled Tuesday by Republican nominee for governor Scott Jensen calls for reducing public school funding in favor of private options, cracking down on truancy, and banning so-called critical race theory.
The plan rolled out in the wake of Minnesota's latest education data, which showed the majority of students are not meeting state proficiency standards in math and a shrinking number of students are proficient in reading.
The data also detailed how deep, systemic disparities were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and 371 public schools were ultimately marked for intense support from the Minnesota Department of Education.
"Our kids are failing and our school system is failing our kids and our families," lieutenant governor candidate Matt Birk said during the unveiling of the education plan at the State Fair on Tuesday.
Jensen's plan proposes a major shake-up to the public school system with a provision to allow public dollars be put towards private school tuition.
"We need to have a more customized approach, greater choice, different types of schools — probably more schools, smaller schools," Birk, who founded a private school in Burnsville that would be eligible for private school vouchers, said Tuesday.
The plan promises to "redesign very low performing schools" by converting schools to charter or private schools, or a different model altogether.
Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, continues to advocate for increases to school spending, noting that Minnesota's public schools have been underfunded for decades, whereas Jensen and Birk are campaigning on a message of offering a new approach that involves less money spent on schools.
When asked in an MPR News interview in May if he supports more money for public schools, Jensen replied, "Less money — I think it's a black hole, we're just dumping money and we're not getting results."
"Scott Jensen's radical plan to convert public schools into private schools and put politicians in charge of students' learning takes his 'defund public education' ideology to a new extreme," Walz's campaign manager Nichole Johnson told the Star Tribune.
Ideas put forth in the ten-point plan also include creating a system for greater parental oversight in schools and bans to keep "politics and divisive curriculum out of the classroom," Jensen said.
"When we do things like critical race theory or hyper-sexualize our kids with curricula questions or instructions that don't fit at the level of age they are at, we're doing them no favors," he stated during the announcement at the Fair.
Republicans across the country have led movements to ban critical race theory from classrooms, although the name of the longstanding, college-level academic concept has been widely misused to describe any teaching of race and racial history in schools.
Joshua Crosson, executive director of Ed Allies, said he appreciates the overarching values and goals in Jensen's plan, but finds some of the language problematic.
He thinks attention is being misplaced on national "culture wars", for example, rather than the issues most concerning to Minnesotans.
“Families across Minnesota are concerned about whether or not their kid is going to be able to catch up after COVID," he said. "They are concerned whether or not their child is going to be able to graduate from high school, prepared for college.”
Crosson also doesn't agree with the criminalization of truancy, for example, because he believes it's a less effective approach than addressing the systemic issues keeping students out of class in the first place.
In regards to school safety, Jensen's plan proposes giving school staff access to the criminal backgrounds of "violent students who may have potential to harm others."
Crosson said such labels risk worsening truancy and could enforce the school-to-prison pipeline by enabling educators to deem some students unworthy of learning.
When it comes to school choice, Crosson believes the state is obligated to make sure all students succeed in whatever learning environment works best for them — and, he said, there's not any one school sector knocking it out of the park.
“We have to create a funding system that provides adequate resources, that is equitably distributed and that looks at the quality of the education and ensures that kids have the opportunity, regardless of their family’s income, regardless of their race, ethnicity and background ... to thrive in whatever educational setting works best for them," he continued.
Ed Allies' stated mission is to make sure historically underserved students "finally receive the rigorous, engaging education they need and deserve." The nonprofit doesn't make an endorsement in political races.
“I think both candidates really have an opportunity to talk about the failures of our education system, talk about the gaps that exist — especially for kids of color and kids with disabilities — and look at the data and say ‘we need to do something about this right away that’s student-center, that’s data-approved and community-enforced'," Crosson said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Jensen campaign said Jensen welcomes the input of Minnesotans in addressing student achievement and other challenges.
"Obviously, we need to do something different, and Dr. Jensen's plan allows for parents and students to be in control of their education and find what fits for them," the spokesperson stated. "A child should not be punished with a poor education based on their zip code or means. It doesn't get more student centered than that."