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House passes GOP's 'teacher test' bill

Rep. Andrea Kieffer speaking at a press conference in support of her education b

MinnPost photo by James Nord

Rep. Andrea Kieffer speaking at a press conference in support of her education bill before it passed the House with wide bipartisan support.

The GOP's education agenda is on the move.

A bill that would require teachers to pass a basic skills test before they enter the classroom passed the state House Monday without opposition. If signed, advocates say it would improve teacher effectiveness and keep unskilled educators out of schools.

Freshman GOP Rep. Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury said outside the House chamber that she worked hard to earn her bill's 132-0 vote. She also credited DFL Rep. Kory Kath of Owatonna for working with her on the measure.

Under current law, teachers can remain in the classroom for three years without passing a basic skills test. Kieffer's legislation would bar educators from teaching if they failed the exam, but candidates would still be able to take it more than once.

"You may have a teacher in a classroom that can't pass a basic skills test, but is touching three years worth of students," Kieffer said. "Let's say if there are 40 students in a classroom, they're touching at least 120 students and maybe shouldn't be in that profession."

House Republicans held a press conference before Monday's floor session to highlight Kieffer's bill, as well as one that would place teacher competence at the heart of layoff decisions, rather than seniority. These are two bills in the Republicans' "Reform 2.0" package.

House Majority Leader Matt Dean praised his caucus' newest lawmakers for getting involved in education reform not only as a legislative priority, but also a "moral prerogative."

Rep. Branden Petersen, a freshman Republican from Andover, is sponsoring legislation that would remove statutory language that requires school districts to focus on employees' seniority during layoffs — a process known as LIFO ("Last In, First Out").

Instead, Petersen's bill elevates the importance of teacher performance measures in district layoff decisions when budgets, declining enrollment or mergers require districts to lose employees.

Advocates say that Minnesota's rigid teacher tenure laws force out a significant number of well-qualified, young educators while retaining others simply because of seniority. A 2009 report from the New Teacher Project, for instance, showed that Minneapolis Public Schools laid off 77 percent of its new hires from the 2005-2006 school year three years later.

"If we know that teachers are the greatest impact on student achievement in the classroom, we ought to do everything we can do to retain those teachers," Petersen said.

Petersen's bill, which is likely to come up in the House soon, may not fare as well as Kieffer's.

"I kind of doubt it," she said.

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed Kieffer's teacher test measure last session, but she said she had addressed the governor's concerns. Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the governor "has not made any public comments on this yet."

Petersen said he hasn't heard much from Democrats about whether his bill will have bipartisan support. "I hope so," he said. "I can't make any solid commitments in terms of what Democrats are going to do."

Both Petersen and Majority Leader Dean criticized Dayton for not getting involved in the education reform process. Rep. Pat Garofalo, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said the governor's education commissioner still hasn't attended a meeting.

"Why isn't he sending his commissioners to committee?" Dean asked. "He needs to get engaged. He can't wait until the end."

But Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius did send Petersen a letter on Wednesday to address her "serious concerns" with the legislation. Cassellius questioned how the bill would affect different-size districts and also attempted to redirect Petersen's priorities.

"It is clear that the fundamental issue that must be addressed is the persistent underfunding of our Minnesota schools, which leaves many districts with limited options other than layoffs," she wrote. "We cannot cut our way to a world-class education. Rather than focusing on layoffs, we should be focusing on strategies to strengthen and support our state's teaching corps."

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