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Some DFLers are bucking longtime ally, Education Minnesota, over a bill that opens up teacher licensing

Sometimes, legislators break away from the interest groups that so often bind them. In this case, despite opposition from the teachers union, a bill that would change license procedures is advancing with some DFL support.

Sen. Terri Bonoff
Sen. Terri Bonoff

There are times state legislators show up at the Capitol not wearing their party colors. And times they even break away from the interest groups that so often bind them.

For example, Tuesday morning, the Senate Education Committee passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, that would open up teacher licensure in the state.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, is chairman of the House Education Committee, which passed a bill that would change licensure. All Republicans on his committee supported the change, as well as a handful of DFLers.

Politically, this is as against the grain as it gets.

Not only is alternative licensure a reform issue on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s education agenda, but it’s also strongly opposed by Education Minnesota, the teachers union that is said to have such a powerful hold on the DFL.

One other important detail in the middle of this union/political/policy battle: Most believe that one of the major reasons the state flopped so miserably in the race for the feds’ “Race to the Top” dollars is the lack of alternative licensing procedures in the state. According to Bonoff, alternative licensing was worth about 21 points on the feds’ application and Minnesota probably got blanked in that category.

Trying again despite last year’s defeat
This is not a new issue for either Bonoff or Mariani. She successfully pushed the issue through the Senate last year, but it was lost in the House, despite the support of Mariani, who fears it will face a tough time again this year.

Rep. Carlos Mariani
Rep. Carlos Mariani

The political reality is that a number of DFL legislators, including House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, are seeking gubernatorial endorsement. Education Minnesota has not thrown its considerable weight behind any candidate yet. In other words, it’s not exactly the time that many DFLers are seeking a fight with a powerful union.

Bonoff wouldn’t comment on the impact of gubernatorial endorsement politics on this issue.

Mariani isn’t so sure that the governor’s race is behind House reluctance to buck the union.

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘These people have been our friends for a long time,’ ” he said. “It’s going to take some time. I think what’s happening is an evolutionary thing.” 

But both say that work being done on this key education issue shows that many legislators still are attempting to do meaningful business in the midst of the partisan bickering that dominates the headlines.

“This is mainstream reform policy,” Bonoff said.

Said Mariani, “Most people here honestly are trying to do thoughtful work.”

Closing achievement is core issue
At the core of this struggle is the achievement gap that plagues schools nationally.

Supporters such as Mariani see opening up licensure as a way to bring new blood into the educational system.

“I support teachers,” he said. “The last thing I want to be seen as doing is bashing teachers, but … We have an aging teaching force. We have a mono-cultural teaching force.”

And we have ingrained systems that are failing kids of color, he said. He cited University of Michigan studies that show “persistent patterns. If you attend a low income school, the chances are that you are not being taught a higher strain of math.”

He looks at the studies, he looks at the gaps and he thinks of his conversations with kids of color in St. Paul.

“I talk to 15- and 16-year-old boys,” he said. “They’re wonderful young kids, but they’re lost. They have outsized dreams, compared to their educations.”

His conclusion: “We need changes.”

For her part, Bonoff is excited by the enthusiasm she has seen in young college grads who have entered the Teach for America program.

“They’re the best and the brightest students,” she said. “Only a small percentage gets in. They [Teach for America] are committed to recruiting teachers of color. It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s a great opportunity.”

The problem with current Minnesota law, she said, is the requirement of special waivers for districts that want to hire from the Teach for America pool or any other non-traditional pool. After two years, it’s almost impossible for teachers from the non-traditional pool to stay in school districts no matter how successful they’ve been.

Education Minnesota disagrees on best strategy
To be clear, Education Minnesota also said it’s keenly focused on closing the achievement gap. But the union insists that changing licensure is not the answer.

Tom Dooher
Tom Dooher

“The students who have the greatest needs need the most qualified teachers,” said Tom Dooher, head of Education Minnesota during Wednesday’s “Midday” program on Minnesota Public Radio.

He called the idea of allowing more access to classrooms to those from such programs as Teach for America or of reaching out to older people with professional experience in the sciences and engineering to teach such things as math “unproven” ways to close the achievement gap.

The proven way to improve student achievement is to lower classroom sizes, with a student teacher of 18 to 1 the ideal, Dooher tells anyone who will listen.

Likely, the fundamental union reason for not wanting to see more doors open to people from non-traditional backgrounds is that in these difficult times, the landscape already is littered with teachers who have been laid off because of cutbacks.

It makes no sense to hire “unproven” people at a time when there are so many “qualified” teachers in our midst, Dooher says.

So how is Education Minnesota dealing with these DFLers who are opposing them on what the union sees as a fundamental issue?

“In traditional ways,” said Mariani.

What’s that mean?

He picked his words very carefully.

“When you’re in the den with the lion, you don’t kick the lion,” he said, laughing.

In fact, Mariani said, he believes there’s been a little less intensity from the union this year than a year ago.

Bill’s sponsors getting lots of feedback
To be sure, Mariani and Bonoff received scores of phone calls and emails from teachers when their bills came up.

Bonoff was frustrated by many of those calls.

“I’d get calls and e-mails, ‘Don’t lower standards,’ ” she said. “But the fact is, our bill has rigorous standards.”

Mariani also was frustrated by some of the calls, but he said also felt the pain of teachers.

“There were a torrent of calls and messages from irate teachers from all over the state,” he said. “It’s always hard when someone is angry with you. But painful as that is, you do understand that it’s real people you’re dealing with, not just some policy. You always shoot them back a call and let them express their concerns.”

Bonoff said she has not met with Dooher, though she’s been trying to meet with him since last June.

Mariani, though, has had a couple of quiet conversations with the union leader. At one point, the legislator suggested that the union “should not get in a public relations battle with Teach for America. You cannot win that battle.”

Always, he said, he tries to bring Education Minnesota to the table with this message: “Look, help shape this or it’s going to get shaped without you.”

In time, he believes the union will change its position. And he’s certain more and more DFLers will stand up for the changes. Mariani believes that President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have given Democrats “cover” to move away from traditional party-union positions.

Meantime, though, it’s a handful of DFLers standing with Republicans. That may not be enough to change a policy, but it can shatter some stereotypes. 

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.