As session opens, Dayton puts focus on education

/ 4 January 2015 / Shawna
Patrick Condon, Star Tribune, January 5, 2015

Entering his final term, the governor said schools offer the best hope of bridging a harmful wealth divide. VIDEO

Declaring that better learning opportunities can help erase America’s growing gap between rich and poor, Gov. Mark Dayton started his second term Monday with a vow to deliver “an excellent education” to every single Minnesotan.

“Our citizens have long known that a good education is the key to our success. Now, we need to realize that a good education is the key to our survival,” Dayton said in an inaugural speech that doubled as a road map to his goals for a legislative session that starts Tuesday.

Re-elected in November by a healthy margin, Dayton took his oath of office from Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea before a crowd of several hundred people at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. In between rousing performances by a gospel choir and a color guard presentation, Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto also were sworn in for new terms, and two new executive branch officers began theirs: Lt. Gov. Tina Flint Smith and Secretary of State Steve Simon, all DFLers.

The 67-year-old Dayton is now underway with what he promises will be his political swan song, after four decades in and out of politics. As the governor took his oath Monday, his son Eric stood by his side, holding Dayton’s only grandchild, 21-month-old Hugo. Dayton thanked his 96-year-old father, Bruce Dayton, also in the audience, and pointed out there were “four generations of Dayton here today.”

Dayton started his 17-minute speech by tallying the economic successes of his first term. “We gather today at a much better time,” he said, noting the state unemployment rate was 6.8 percent when he took office and now sits at 3.7 percent.

“We have added over 191,000 jobs during the past four years — and we’re not done yet,” Dayton said. He cited predictions by economists that the U.S. is poised to enter a period of even more robust economic growth.

But Dayton quickly pivoted away from overt optimism, raising alarm about an issue that Democrats both nationally and in Minnesota have emphasized with increasing frequency in recent years: income inequality.

Dayton said inequities in wealth and income between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else “explains the large divide between the new optimism on Wall Street and the persistent pessimism on Main Street, where real wages and median family incomes have continued to fall, even during this recovery.”

The path out of that, Dayton said, is providing the best educational opportunities in the widest manner possible. It’s a variation on a theme that Dayton has returned to throughout his political career, which he launched shortly after working for several years as a public schoolteacher in New York City.

“If we’re going to improve people’s lives in our state, we have to improve their educations,” Dayton said. To do that, he proposed that state lawmakers direct more state resources to early education and child-care programs, with a goal that fewer children start kindergarten unprepared. Dayton also wants to boost the amount of per-pupil aid to Minnesota schools.

Dayton said the state must better protect abused and neglected children with a system that intervenes more quickly and effectively, and provides more mental health resources to those victimized. He repeated his call for a major funding boost for Minnesota’s aging transportation infrastructure, and said he’d release more details on that plan soon.

A new dynamic

The governor’s wish list is at the mercy of state legislators, including a new GOP House majority that gets sworn in Tuesday.

While lawmakers have a $1 billion projected budget surplus to make their jobs easier, Dayton seemed to acknowledge the new influence of Republicans at the Capitol by arguing that his priorities should be viewed as investments, and not simply spending increases.

“There’s a big difference between spending and investing. Spending is for now — people spend money to buy what they need or want right away,” Dayton said. “Investing is for the future. Wise financial management requires understanding this difference, and striking a proper balance between them.”

Education is likely to be a main emphasis of the House Republican majority, too. But the approach is likely to be different, as Republicans eye policy changes that could include making it easier to remove underperforming teachers, and increasing school choice.

“We’re spending 30 percent more money on K-12 education today than we were 10 years ago,” said Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who takes over as House speaker on Tuesday. “If money were the answer, we’d have probably one of the best education systems in the world.”

While Inauguration Day typically has been a chance for noble-sounding tributes to bipartisanship and collaboration, both Daudt and the top Senate leader, Majority Leader Tom Bakk, skipped the festivities. Daudt was across the street at the St. Paul Hotel attending a fundraiser for the House Republicans, while Bakk, DFL-Cook, was interviewing job applicants.

“We obviously had another event planned a couple months ago and I certainly wish that I could have been there,” Daudt said.

In fact, prominent Republicans were nowhere to be seen at Landmark Center, either on stage or in the audience, with the exception of former Gov. Al Quie. For the second Inauguration Day in a row, it was all DFLers taking the oath.

For Smith, the ceremony was a first step onto a wider public stage after years behind the scenes as a DFL operative, including a three-year stint as Dayton’s chief aide. In her remarks, she highlighted the creativity and inventiveness of Minnesota’s citizens

“This is the heart of invention, and the heart of what makes Minnesota exceptional,” Smith said. “In business language, we would call this our competitive advantage.”

Staff writers Abby Simons and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.

Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049