ST. PAUL — As lawmakers prepare to negotiate a multi-billion dollar state budget and navigate the pandemic-era deficit, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is pushing for “sweeping” public education reform to address the pandemic’s impact on students, as well as long-standing disparities in public education.

Walz, a former schoolteacher himself, unveiled the seven-point plan at a Monday, Jan. 25 news conference, alongside Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, educators, advocates and students. In the immediate future, the plan emphasizes keeping students safe during the pandemic, and catching kids up academically after a tumultuous year while caring for their mental health. In the long term, the plan looks to address Minnesota’s notorious, long-standing disparities in education outcomes between white students and students of color.

While Walz said Minnesota “has much to be proud of” in its education systems, he recognized that student outcomes “weren’t always equal... depending on the color of your skin or your zip code.” And while COVID and its immediate effects have monopolized Minnesotans’ headspace, Walz said the pandemic has also “shined a very harsh spotlight” on those disparities.

“If we as a state do not look directly into the mirror and address the racial inequities and systemic racism, we may not get another shot. This is our shot,” Walz said. “It starts with education. It stems from this.”

Walz did not specify a price tag for the plan, named the “Due North” plan, but said he would go into further detail about his budget requests for education and otherwise at a news conference scheduled Tuesday. The divided Legislature ultimately will pass their own version of two-year state budget, which Walz can then sign into law.

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Minnesota’s teacher union, Education Minnesota, gave its stamp of approval to the plan. In a written statement, President Denise Specht said the plan “shows a willingness to take on the trauma caused by the pandemic — and the underlying racism revealed by it —and to build back to better schools for everyone.”

Republican lawmakers, though, were quick to denounce the plan, dubbing it the “Do Nothing” plan. Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, who is the party lead on the House Education Finance Committee, said in a written statement that the plan “is heavy on talking points, but lacks any meaningful reforms,” and called it a “recipe for failure.”

“Indoctrinating students with messages that focus on our country's flaws won't raise the percentage of kids reading at grade level. It won't help increase math scores,” he said.

In the opposite chamber, Senate Education Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said in a written statement that the plan “has some things we can agree on, but overall there’s nothing new or creative here.”

“These are not Minnesota priorities; Minnesotans are not asking for more of the same,” he said. “They are asking for choice, for self-determination, and to get all kids back in schools right now.”