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Group says criticism of levy is effort to push education reform

Opponents of an operating levy ren-ewal in Willmar hope a defeat of the levy will help spur more discussion of education reform.

The group opposes the district's effort to renew a $498.49-per-pupil operating levy.

"The economic model for education is broken," said David Herzer, a member of the group Willmar-StudentsFirst which is opposing the renewal of the levy.

Herzer said the group feels that the Willmar School Board has not tackled the idea of school reform or engaged the community in the discussion. He said they would like to see the board take a more active role in lobbying the Legislature, too.

He discounted the lobbying efforts of the Minnesota School Boards Association, of which the Willmar board is a member. Discussion is needed at the local level about needed changes in state and federal education law, he said.

In an interview with the Tribune, Herzer and fellow group member Bob Bonawitz did not outline a strategy for moving the discussion from Willmar to the state and federal levels. School districts are limited in the changes they can make because they must follow state and federal regulations.

"We think the discussion needs to begin," Herzer said.

"Issues of this kind don't start in St. Paul," he added. "They start at the grassroots level."

Herzer said he defines reform as "a more efficient economic model and a higher-quality student produced."

The group wants to see an end to state and federal requirements that are imposed on school districts without any additional funding, commonly called unfunded mandates.

The biggest example of an unfunded mandate in education is the federal government's promise to pay for the cost of special education services that are required by law. Federal funding for special education has consistently been less than one-fifth the total cost.

Herzer said a state-level example is the requirement that districts deduct union dues from employees' paychecks. The group voices other criticisms of teacher unions in their literature.

Bonawitz said that the group has been labeled "anti-student," but he believes the members are taking a long-range view of the issue.

"Maybe the way we're looking at it would be questioned by many," he said. "We're trying to bring some energy to the discussion. ... How do we get people's attention? Maybe we need to take a hard point."

Asked what they would like the School Board to do to spur on the discussion, Bonawitz suggested a newsletter about education reform issues.

"They need to get the citizens behind them," he said.

The group is affiliated with the national StudentsFirst group formed by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system.

The group has weekly private meetings and usually has 12 to 15 people attending, Herzer said. He estimated that about a half dozen of them are current or former educators. The leaders of the group have declined to name their members publicly for fear of reprisals.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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