If there’s one thing to be said about Minnesota’s unionized teachers, it’s that they’re too focused to let a little unruliness knock them off-topic.
On Saturday, delegates representing Education Minnesota’s 70,000 members elected Denise Specht to be the union’s next president. Currently finishing her second term as secretary-treasurer, Specht will begin her three-year term July 1.
A former president of the Centennial Education Association, Specht’s long career includes stints as a Title I teacher at Golden Lake Elementary School in the Centennial district and teaching sixth grade in Forest Lake.
Specht’s campaign website and Facebook page include shout-outs from literally hundreds of teachers, educational support professionals and university and community-college faculty members, most of whom praise her for her willingness to listen and to forge collaborative relationships.
None of them seems anxious to talk for the record about their decision to replace two-term President Tom Dooher, however. Dooher’s campaign site was down as of Monday night.
Specht herself is turning down all interview requests for the moment. And calls to a number of her supporters throughout the state did not yield so much as a gushy endorsement.
Keeping focus on Capitol
“I fully support and trust Denise’s leadership and am excited to help her move Education Minnesota forward come July 1, but right now I am committed to continuing collaboration with President Dooher on our mission to improve public education,” was one representative response, received from a member of Education Minnesota’s governing board.
“We are focused on working to build quality evaluation systems that will support educators and improve our profession while continuing to have conversations with our elected officials on the importance of fully supporting and funding our schools. Please let me know if you have any further questions ….”
So where did all this milquetoast come from? Here’s what Your Humble Blogger was able to strong-arm out of courtesy calls returned by a few reliable suspects:
For starters, it’s go time at the Capitol and it would not be good for Education Minnesota’s agenda if the election of a new president were seen as a change of direction. Which it is in fact not — in terms of public policy, anyhow.
Nor is it a repudiation of Dooher’s leadership so much as simmering irritation with Dooher. The grandson of a Teamster leader murdered in 1937 — likely by mobsters — Dooher is a third-generation labor organizer who taught middle-school phys ed and coached in Robbinsdale before assuming a union leadership role in 1997.
Little known here in Minnesota is the aura of success that Dooher has acquired on the national scene. Last summer, the National Education Association (NEA) awarded Gov. Mark Dayton its America’s Greatest Education Governor award. Ostensibly in recognition of his investments in public education, the award was read as a vote of thanks for Dayton’s repeated refusal to sign legislation that would have required teacher performance data to play into layoff decisions.
Dooher’s personal style rankled
Correspondingly, Dooher was seen as the man who delivered. And happy though his members — energized by the Chicago teachers’ strike in a way that is perhaps not appreciated enough by outsiders — might have been, many saw Dooher as a self-promoter.
And even some of Education Minnesota’s staunchest supporters in the Legislature were said to rankle at Dooher’s personal style.
What’s behind the warm and fuzzy endorsements of Specht’s style? Insiders would say little except that she is expected to seek out more widespread participation.
(Illustrative tangent: Only 17 percent of active teachers voted in last week’s election of new leaders of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Retirees cast more than half of ballots.)
Here it’s important to keep in mind that public school teachers have endured a miserable few years in the public arena. Many want the policy changes and restored funding Dooher’s administration sought and Specht’s is expected to continue to push for.
The debate over classroom effectiveness
At the same time, a new poll by the education reform advocacy group MinnCAN suggests teachers are more interested in the debate over effectiveness in the classroom than is typically assumed.
Nearly two-thirds of teachers with one to 20 years’ experience believe effectiveness should be the primary consideration in layoff decisions, the organization found. And nearly 90 percent agree good teacher evaluations and professional development will help advance student learning.
Finally, contract negotiations soon to start in Minneapolis are expected to be brutal, possibly widening dissension within the district’s federation.
In short, the seat Specht assumes July 1 will be a hot one indeed. No doubt that right now, she’s hoping her supporters’ resolute focus on the future endures.