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Editorial: Reforming K-12 top to bottom

The 2010 Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in going through their budget machinations, pretty much kept K-12 public education off the table.

Yet, K-12 education in Minnesota is the state's largest budget item, at $15.5 billion for the two-year biennium, followed by health and human services at $11.7 billion. With the 2011 Legislature staring at a $5.4 billion deficit - one that could climb in excess of $7 billion - K-12 education can no longer be left off the table.

We must find savings, and we must cut K-12 education spending. No longer can we just add funding. We also can't cut K-12 education funding for the sake of cutting it.

What we need is a bottom-to-top reform of education spending, directing more of it to the earlier grades where it makes the most difference, and targeting to those programs that work in the classroom. It also means adding an "E" for early education to make it E-12 funding.

Art Rolnick of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve long established that every dollar spent on early education pays the state back $12 in later saved expenses in remedial education, welfare and correction. We must ensure that our early education teachers are well-trained and well-paid.

In fact, we need strength in our classrooms through the third grade, where the basic foundation of learning is laid. Reading and literacy is of utmost importance, as it is at the third grade where children switch from learning to read to reading to learn.

Reforms are needed at the upper levels to allow more professionals to take their life experiences into the classroom. An easier and less costly way needs to be found to allow that wealth of experience into the classroom, especially in math and science where teacher recruitment is difficult.

And what are the charter schools doing? There must be some that are unique in their delivery of education that can be shared with mainstream public schools.

Public education is ruled by a series of complicated formulas, none so complicated as transportation funding. Extremely large geographic districts such as Bemidji must subsidize their transportation costs with general education dollars because the state formula figures transportation on the number of students, not how many buses must travel so far.

Teacher standards and performance pay is also a reform measure, albeit one that won't be easy to achieve. Teachers must enter the classroom prepared to teach, and we must find a way to reward those that bring results. And we must retrain or dismiss those who don't.

Nothing short of a total overhaul is needed, one that truly allows every student - rural and metro - the same opportunity to succeed in the most cost-effective way.