Are Minnesota’s Schools the “Worst In the Nation”?

The Star Tribune reports on billboards that have gone up around the Twin Cities:

The bold statement is clarified in smaller print at the bottom of the signs, citing national statistics on high school graduation rates without specifics. (The most recent data available, from the 2016-17 school year, show Minnesota had the lowest graduation rates of any state for black and Hispanic students, and the second-lowest for American Indian students.)

The Ciresi Walburn Foundation, which focuses on education in Minnesota, is behind the campaign:

The foundation hands out more than $1 million each year in grants, all from the tobacco settlement and investment proceeds. While much of that money used to go to large districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ciresi said the foundation determined the money was “kind of going into a black hole in space” within the districts and wasn’t making an impact. Now, it primarily provides grants to charter schools, private schools and organizations related to early learning or efforts that emphasize school choice.

That evolution reflects the thinking of just about everyone who studies public education in Minnesota and elsewhere. Of course, the teachers’ union–the main obstacle to progress in the public schools–is unhappy with the billboards’ message:

Bernie Burnham, vice president of Education Minnesota, the teachers union, said she believes people are aware of Minnesota’s achievement gaps. She thinks the ads are trying to capitalize on divisions between supporters of traditional public schools and those of charter and private schools.

The Cires-Walburn billboards focus on minority children, but the broader question is, how good are Minnesota’s schools, really? Minnesotans tend to think our public schools are excellent, but the data paint a different picture. The Center is currently working on a major paper that will address the quality of Minnesota’s public education, including but by no means limited to the status of minority children.