Emmer talks education reform at Humphrey

He proposes to reform school testing and to boost the number of teachers.

James Nord

With an air of bipartisanship and a detailed proposal, Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer discussed education reform Wednesday during a candidate forum at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Emmer deviated from his usual topics, taxes and state spending, to detail his ideas for reform at the K-12 level. His plan would focus on increasing accountability, improving results and reevaluating the practical aspects of teaching.

“We can redesign government to be more efficient than ever, and we can create the business environment that will create more jobs than we could ever dream, but if we do not have the next generation prepared to drive the economic engine, our efforts will have been for naught,” Emmer said to a room of about 100 spectators.

Emmer would reform school testing and use it as a benchmark to measure progress not only for students, but for schools and teachers.

“What gets measured will get done,” he said.

Teaching would also change significantly under Emmer’s proposal. Alternative licensure programs would allow more people to become teachers, and educators who produce positive results would be compensated more. There would also be tenure reviews used to evaluate teacher performance.

But Emmer might face challenges from teachers and unions. Any educators in the room likely left the event slightly unsettled, Larry Jacobs, moderator of the event, said.

The state is “too wedded” to traditional education, Emmer said. He stressed the importance of allowing families to have choices when it comes to education, giving both online and charter schools as examples.

He praised some of President Barack Obama’s education reform policies, as well.

“Tom Emmer is a lot smarter and more complex than the box he’s put in,” Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Government, said.

Emmer also argued against mandates and the federal government’s “one size fits all” model for education. He proposed allowing schools to petition to be exempt from certain state mandates.

During the question and answer session of the forum, the University of Minnesota inevitably came up.

Emmer’s budget plan, released Tuesday, would cut nearly $1 billion in education funding, including $417 million from higher education, over the next biennium.

“It’s not because I don’t support [higher education], absolutely not,” Emmer said. “It’s because out of the candidates running for this office, I’m going to be honest with you where I think the targets should be.”

The University needs to live within its means, similar to state and federal governments, he said.

The cuts could spur the University to innovate and become more efficient, Emmer said. If revenues increase in the coming years, money could be put toward higher education.

“What he’s saying is, ‘We’re going to go through a period of famine now with cutbacks, and then in future years, if the economy rebounds, there will be some more reinvestment,’ ” Jacobs said.

But when asked about students’ debt upon leaving school, Emmer dodged the question, Jacobs said. Emmer assigned students a lot of the responsibility to cover their education costs, but said tuition guarantees and low interest loans are a possibility.

Previously, Emmer’s opponents, DFL-nominee Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, had criticized the lack of specificity in Emmer’s proposals.

Now, Emmer’s plans could be the most detailed of the three, Jacobs said.

“[Discussing education] is a brilliant choice by him because it’s a way in which he’s going to access independent voters, reassure some of the moderate Republicans who are a bit freaked out at this point,” Jacobs said.

The Center for the Study of Politics and Government hosted a forum for Dayton on Monday. Horner will appear at noon on Monday at Cowles Auditorium.