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All eyes on Dayton in fate of teacher-layoffs bill

The bill, which the governor has opposed, would end the “last in, first out” layoff system.

Gov. Mark Dayton is hearing from both sides of the LIFO debate as the session winds down.

As a matter of policy, Gov. Mark Dayton’s office does not comment on communications with constituents. And so it is impossible to know whom he is hearing from in the final days of the legislative session and what his correspondents are urging.

It’s probably safe to assume, however, that the communications concerning House File 1870, the measure that would end seniority-only teacher layoffs, number in the thousands.

Education Minnesota’s 70,000 members and their brethren in other unions are doubtless pounding the phones, urging the governor not to waver from his commitment to veto the measure, dubbed LIFO for “last in, first out,” the colloquial term for the current system.

And state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is said to share Dayton’s distaste with the anti-union, anti-teacher tenor of the political season.

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On the other side of the issue, numerous local and national advocacy groups, political luminaries from other states and a local charitable foundation are working feverishly to convince the governor that the public would welcome his signature on the bill.

The education reform group MinnCAN and the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children have created public-service advertisements on the issue, among other education reform topics; MinnCAN plans to step up its campaign between now and sine die.

Bush and Cuomo weigh in

And ideological opponents Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have called to urge Dayton to change his mind.

Are any of the communications proving persuasive? No one is pretending to have a clue right now.  

“It truly is between him and his God,” quipped one policy advocate.

On Tuesday, following several days of fireworks-free discussion with Cassellius, the House passed an omnibus education bill that does not include the most controversial proposals introduced this year. Lawmakers are said to be desperate to get home to their redrawn districts to begin assuaging voters angered by the last two sessions, and anything that might gum up the works — LIFO included — will go to the governor as a standalone bill.

Governor has cited two reasons

Dayton has been resolute in stating his opposition to the bill, citing two reasons. First, since the teacher-evaluation system passed into law last year is not yet in operation, it will be threatening to teachers, who do not yet have guarantees the system will work.

Second, he believes that much of the support for the bill is part of a concerted, ideologically driven effort to break the backs of public-sector unions.

In late March, the state Senate and House of Representatives each passed a version of the Republican-authored bills, with some DFL support. Starting in 2017, teachers performance data would be the first consideration in layoffs and seniority the second. The lag in implementation would allow for completion of the first full three-year cycle of teacher evaluations that incorporate student performance.

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As is customary, discrepancies between the two bills were ironed out in a conference committee, which stopped short of voting on the measure. The governor has three days from final passage to act, and in this case letting the bill sit for a month seemed its only chance.

‘Its only hope’

What could change? Dayton might end up needing something from GOP legislative leadership, which could then try to broker a compromise. But by its nature, the bill doesn’t present much opportunity for compromise.

Sen Terri BonoffSen. Terri Bonoff

“Its only hope is that as the Republican leadership negotiates a final deal, it is offered as part of a strong enough package,” Minnetonka Sen. Terri Bonoff, one of LIFO’s handful of DFL sponsors, said yesterday. “Or they are good enough negotiators.”

The other possibility is enough popular pressure could be brought to bear that the governor would decide to hold his nose and sign the measure.

“He has said he’s not going to do that,” said Bonoff. “But I’ve done this long enough to know you never know.”

Case in point, in her opinion: The Vikings stadium appeared dead until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell flew into town and suggested the team might leave. “As the public became outraged, the appetite for progressing the stadium increased,” Bonoff said.

Poll of Minnesotans

A two-year-old coalition of business, philanthropic and policy groups all working for education reform, MinnCAN has been advertising about its policy priorities, including an end to LIFO, since the start of the session. Early on the group commissioned a poll that showed an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans opposed quality-blind layoffs and shared the numbers with lawmakers and others.

Parents and principals both told pollsters that tightened budgets have resulted in great teachers laid off while their less effective but more senior peers keep their jobs.

A MinnCAN spokesman yesterday confirmed that the group hopes to intensify its advertising on the issue in the few remaining days of the session in the hope of convincing more people to contact Dayton. So far it claims more than 2,000 people have called or written at its behest.

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The Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, for whom education reform is a priority, also is advertising throughout April on teacher effectiveness and other issues related to closing the achievement gap.  

And the Minnesota branch of Students First, a national reform advocacy group started by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, Monday released a poll conducted last week with numbers very similar to MinnCAN’s.

Some 86 percent of Minnesota voters say a “variety of factors” instead of “one main factor” should determine which teachers to lay off first, according to Students First; 11 percent oppose ending LIFO.

Other support

Others in favor of ending LIFO include the Minnesota Business Partnership, the African American Leadership Forum, some members of the grassroots Minneapolis parents’ organization Put Kids First and a newly formed teachers group, Empowering Teachers for Equity Minnesota.

Broad though the bill’s support is, its backers probably can’t generate the same outcry Goodell succeeded in raising, Bonoff noted. Nor does she or anyone else involved in the issue have a spy in Dayton’s inner sanctum sniffing out what, if anything, would move the governor.

She does, however, have an idea: Make teacher compensation as high a priority as performance. “We should always be looking at quality first,” Bonoff said. “But I don’t think we pay them commensurate with their value.”