The Advocate: Mary Cecconi Educates Parents, Legislators to Help Them Support Education

By Fitzgerald, John | MinnPost.com, June 4, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Advocate: Mary Cecconi Educates Parents, Legislators to Help Them Support Education


Fitzgerald, John, MinnPost.com


While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, "Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership," MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights -- and, we hope in some cases, inspiration -- for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from a leadership expert. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Knowing how much money schools get from the state to educate children should be simple. The amount should be comprehensible to the average adult, transparent to anyone who wants to know where the money comes from and where it is spent, and fairly distributed among rural, suburban and urban students.

Unfortunately, education funding in Minnesota is none of these things. School district superintendents and financial officers spend a lifetime learning the alleys and hedgerows of education funding, and when a regular parent has a question, the answer is more likely to be confusing than helpful.

Enter Parents United for Public Schools, an organization born out of frustration with education funding and what to do about it.

At the heart of Parents United is Mary Cecconi of Stillwater, a woman who doesn't consider herself a leader. The nonprofit's executive director since 2004, Cecconi prefers to think of herself as an access point where parents and legislators can get the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their schools.

Flaws in the system

Parents United is actually the result of a unique flaw in Minnesota's educational hierarchy. Most states either elect a statewide school board or an education commissioner. Minnesota is the only state that does neither. Our education commissioner is a political appointee, which leaves the administration of statewide education policy and funding at the whim of whoever holds the governor's chair.

This process works fine when the governor and Legislature are pro- education, as they were from the 1960s to the 1990s during what has been called "The Minnesota Miracle." Minnesotans were among the best- educated in the nation, if not the world, and thanks to an effective tax system, schools had the money necessary to do the job.

This changed in the late 1990s when Gov. Jesse Ventura vilified public education, calling its funding mechanism a "black hole that will never have enough money." He and the Legislature changed the school funding formula and gave property taxpayers rebates totaling more than $1 billion. They then required school districts to ask voters for bond levies if they needed to make up the funding that was lost. Not surprisingly, more than a decade later all but one or two of the states' 340 school districts need a bond levy to pay their bills, and the total amount is just over $1 billion.

The assault on school funding was continued by the less bombastic but more focused Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who rarely accounted for inflation when determining school budgets and used accounting tricks to swap billions of dollars from schools with IOUs for a later date. In addition, increased demands and unfunded mandates from areas such as special education and universal testing further squeezed school budgets.

It was during Ventura's administration that public-school supporters realized the need to provide clarity on how schools are funded. It was during Pawlenty's administration that education supporters saw the need for a campaign using information and parent lobbying to counteract the negative attitude toward public schools at the Capitol.

The movement needed a flag-bearer - someone with the knowledge, energy and desire to promote better school funding and the policies to achieve it. …

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