EAST GULL LAKE — For a state that prides itself on its emphasis on academia and largely positive record for education, Minnesota’s achievement gap between white students and students of color has been a growing concern for decades.

And, as far as Gov. Tim Walz is concerned, meeting the needs of non-white students being left behind isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s one that will have resonating implications for decades to come. Walz also took aim at disparities between rural and urban students, as well as students from struggling economic backgrounds compared to their more fortunate peers.

“We have no choice but to move toward the future,” Walz said during his address Monday, Nov. 18, to the Minnesota Rural Education Association Conference at Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. “We have a really strong economy, but the horizon looks a little bit challenging because we don’t have the workforce. Here’s a statistic for you: 70% of the workforce over the next 20 years will come from communities of color. We can’t afford to have the nation’s largest achievement gap.”

In addition, Walz warned education that’s dependent on the individualized tax base of communities could lead to cultural barriers of achievement that could hurt all Minnesotans during a time of technological change and preparing successors for an aging workforce.

“If we get to the point where our education funding depends on property taxes we’re going to be in a big load of hurt,” Walz said. “I can tell you that we’re making the case in our administration that children don’t come in pieces, so why would we approach them in pieces? We’re listening to all voices.”

Drawing on experiences as a former teacher, Walz said the plan is to create a “children’s cabinet” of experts from varying disciplines, agencies and backgrounds to revamp education in Minnesota in a way that’s holistic, but also uniform across various regions, demographics and socioeconomic environs.

He cited stable homes — which are tied into social services, the justice system, and affordable housing — as an example of external factors that influence education outcomes long before children see the inside of a classroom.

Despite decades of efforts to rectify the issue, the academic achievement gap between white and non-white students remains a persistent problem in Minnesota. According to an October report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, white students continued to outperform the majority of non-white subgroups by significant margins across the state in 2018.

Testing data compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education cited in the report illustrated that conclusion. For Grade 4 reading proficiency, 65.3% of white students read at grade level, while Native American students scored 31% proficient, Asian students scored 47%, black students scored 30.6% and Hispanic students scored 32.1%. Students eligible for free or reduced-price meals scored 35.8%.

This discrepancy was also reflected in Grade 8 math proficiency, where 65% of white students performed at grade levels, while 25.3% of Native American students, 62.7% of Asian students, 28.7% of black students and 36.3% of Hispanic students were proficient. Students eligible for free or reduced-price meals scored 36.3%.

This manifests in a distinct advantage for white students in graduation rates and college readiness, with Asian students lagging behind and a broad gulf for Native American, black and Hispanic students.

“In a time when people don’t believe in institutions, they still believe in teachers, they still believe in schools, they still believe in students and their communities,” said Walz, who noted it was encouraging to see 87% of school operating levy referendums pass, while 82% of school building referendums were approved by roughly 70 communities across Minnesota on Nov. 5.

At the same time, Walz said, it’s about addressing the 13% or 18% of school districts who didn’t vote to fund education in a proactive manner.

“We’re seeing demographics shifting. We’re seeing historical dehumanizations during times of change. We’re seeing the short-term capitalizations of people trying to find divisions,” Walz said. “We understand that these kids are not a cliche, they are our future. We can help shape that.”