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Education Minnesota’s legislative priorities face a shaky future

Rep. Pat Garofalo, House Education Finance chairman, during today's finance committee meeting.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Rep. Pat Garofalo, House Education Finance chairman, during today’s finance committee meeting.

Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers union, made its session priorities clear today, but it’s very unclear how much common ground it will find with the new Republican legislative majority’s priorities and approach.

President Tom Dooher outlined union standards for closing the achievement gap, instituting a statewide teacher evaluation process and ensuring any alternative teacher licensure bill is “responsible.”

But some methods the union outlined contradict the GOP ideology and legislation already in motion, or they appeal to competing bills. Other issues lawmakers have raised are already bubbling up.

“I’m very confident that Gov. Dayton and the Legislature will reach an agreement on education reform this year, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, House Education Finance Committee chairman. “I am unsure of what role the teachers union will play in it.”

Education Minnesota has 66 active lobbyists registered with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Between January and June 2010, it spent a cumulative $558,000 on lobbying expenses and advertising that it reported to the board.

Tackling the state’s achievement gap is the weightiest issue on the union’s agenda this session, and Dooher was confident it could be bridged.

“It is within our grasp to close the achievement gap in Minnesota,” he said.

The proposal urges the Department of Education to identify the state’s 32 lowest-achieving schools, reduce class sizes and concentrate resources there. In the future, the union said students should have access to all-day kindergarten programs and there should be a statewide assessment of early childhood education services.

Although the union’s proposal targets a handful of the state’s roughly 2,000 schools, the question of how to fund such future services — like all-day kindergarten — still looms. Garofalo said he’s waiting till the state’s February economic forecast before predicting if there are any additional resources for K-12 education.

But a $6.2 billion deficit over the next two years, projected structural shortfalls over future bienniums and an education system that eats up roughly 40 percent of the state budget make it difficult to dream about seeing any more money.

So far, alternative licensure, which makes it easier for college graduates to start teaching, has been the most widely discussed reform this session. At least two bills currently exist in the House — with varying degrees of stringency — that address the need for more educators versed in certain subjects.

Last year, Education Minnesota managed to tank the entire omnibus K-12 education policy bill over language allowing alternative licensure in a way that Dooher said would “weaken the standards for becoming a teacher.”

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, focused on increasing diversity in the classroom and plugging teacher shortages. He modeled it after the Teach for America program.

“Increasing diversity is always going to be great,” Dooher said. “But is that the answer? No.”

Rep. Sondra Erickson, Education Reform Committee chairwoman, asked Mariani to carry the bill again last week. But Garofalo, her Republican counterpart, sponsored competing legislation that falls surprisingly close to the strict standards espoused by the union.

It’s unclear whether Erickson will jump party lines to support Mariani or follow Garofalo’s lead.

Both Garafolo’s language and union priorities include requiring a teacher to pass skills tests and complete 200 hours of training, but Education Minnesota went further by supporting a move that would involve teacher supervision for the first 90 days of class.

“We would love to sit down with Rep. Garofalo and work on a responsible way to get people into the classroom and make sure that they can demonstrate that they know how to teach,” Dooher said.

Adding to the debate, Erickson sponsored a bill that would repeal the state deadline school districts and bargaining units face in settling contracts. If she manages to repeal the current law, unions will lose leverage over districts that faced state aid penalties if they didn’t reach a deal.

Erickson acknowledged the move would anger Education Minnesota, but she said it’s important to find a balance so that districts aren’t penalized.

Despite the philosophical disagreements, the union managed to make an ally in Mariani over statewide teacher evaluation. The issue also was discussed in the Education Reform Committee last week.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/11/2011 - 06:09 pm.

    Mr. Nord,

    Thank you for the informative article. It was interesting reading of the number of lobbyists and the amount of “expenses.”

    It would also be interesting to know the amount of “big education special interest money” that is donated to the DFL compared to the amount donated to the Republicans.

    It seems it would be much better to invest our state’s resources in kids and families rather than the “trickle down, big education union monopoly” that purchases the votes of our politicians and resists real “change and hope” for the children.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/12/2011 - 08:24 am.

    MPR reports

    (quote)
    …Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee, said she thinks Education Minnesota shares many of her goals when it comes to alternative licensure. But Erickson said she doesn’t like the 90 days of supervision.

    “It sounds like the teacher Gestapo to me. I think that if a candidate comes out of one of these programs, he or she is going to be well-prepared to be in the classroom,” said Erickson. “If a district has decided that candidate should be in the classroom, I’m not sure why we would need that Gestapo at work, and I would like to visit with them about that.”
    (end quote)

    http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/01/11/teachers-union-reform-proposal/

    It is instructive that the head of the committee holds such ill-informed and intemperate views.

    First, it shows an appallingly ignorance of history and the role of the Gestapo.

    Second, it seems to smack of “anyone can do this job–don’t stand in their way”.

    Third, what if a wanna-be teacher:

    * can’t connect with the kids, or a segment of the kids?

    * doesn’t teach to the varying abilities of the kids?

    * gets frustrated with the attitudes of students?

    * uses inappropriate language or examples?

    * uses the classroom as a way of promoting their personal views or outlook?

    * gets inappropriately emotional?

    * doesn’t know to teach the subject in an engaging way to the students?

    * has wandering hands, eyes or thoughts?

    The desire to do something does not always correspond to the ability to do it way that meets professional standards. Especially when beginning for the wanna-be, when outside input would be helpful to address weaknesses.

    Supervision for 90 days is an absolute minimum if a district wants to have quality standards, or at the most minimal level, doesn’t want to get nailed with a lawsuit.

    Appalling ignorance!! What hope is there for needed reform if this person is in charge?

  3. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 01/12/2011 - 03:21 pm.

    Wait a minute! Isn’t it a criticism of teachers that they do a poor job, even after gaining an education degree, certification, Praxis testing, and supervised student teaching? But it’s no problem to take uncertified, untested professionals from varying fields and release them to teach without a supervisory period?

    What a slam to teachers. The less you are prepared, the more you are valued.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/13/2011 - 03:37 pm.

    During the hospital nurses strike a year or two ago, the nurses strived in vain the get the local media to include in their articles and op eds the information on studies that proved patient safety was endangered when nursing staffs were not large enough to respond promptly and correctly to all their needs. The unintended implication in such articles was therefore that nurses were just greedy, and perhaps even a little lazy, but were protected by their union. The truth was that, in hospitals with fewer than the recommended number of nurses on staff, a higher percentage of patients died.

    I don’t know if the media just thought the studies were irrelevant or agreed with the “greedy unions” philosophy. For the last 30 years or so, there has been an anti-union movement in the United States. Its success can be seen in the number of companies its highly paid “labor relations consultants” have been able to help defeat worker organizing efforts or to get rid of their unions altogether, and more clearly in the reduction in the number of workers who still belong to unions.

    Lets not let the anti-union forces win when it comes to teachers (or nurses) as they have in so many of our manufacturing companies.

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