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A ferocious pushback by Education Minnesota cast the 70,000-member statewide teacher's union in the role of session bogeyman. The union and its head, Tom Dooher, fought the bill to a standstill in the end; it lost by a tight 68-65 margin in the House, and did not reach the floor in the Senate.

Teachers union may get schooled

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Education Minnesota president Tom Dooher is unrepentant in the face of criticisms about his union’s 2010 lobbying efforts against alternative teacher licensure: “It’s easy to say someone is an obstructionist if you don’t get your way, but schooling is a complex issue.” (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Hard feelings over Education Minnesota’s no-holds-barred lobbying against alternative licensing may ease its passage in 2011

Besides proving itself one of the most contentious issues at the Capitol during the 2010 session, the legislative push for alternative teacher licensing forged some strange political alliances. Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed with President Barack Obama on the policy, which would make it easier to license teachers who lack education degrees. Unlikely coalitions of Democrats and Republicans teamed up on proposals in both chambers. Business and education groups joined hands with organizations representing communities of color to support the measure.

A ferocious pushback by Education Minnesota cast the 70,000-member statewide teacher’s union in the role of session bogeyman. The union and its head, Tom Dooher, fought the bill to a standstill in the end; it lost by a tight 68-65 margin in the House, and did not reach the floor in the Senate.

“The reality is there is a nationwide, broad bipartisan consensus that these programs work,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said. He already has an alternative licensure bill in the works that he thinks will pass the Legislature easily next session. “Outside of the teacher’s union, really no one else is arguing against them.”

While pols like Garofalo argue that mid-career professionals and more diverse teachers in underperforming classrooms will close the achievement gap, the union argues that programs like Teach for America, which trains just-out-of-college students for about five weeks before putting them into classrooms, lack high enough standards.

“To us, there is a big difference between someone who has a degree and someone who gets some practice in the classroom,” Dooher said. “Not everyone can teach. There is an art and science to teaching, and we want to know what alternative pathways make sense and best serve students.”

But this year the powerful union has less clout at the Capitol. Republicans took control of both the state Senate and House for the first time in 38 years, and the union’s friends in high places – like House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher – are no longer at the helm. Many expect an alternative licensure proposal to pass this year, and they credit part of its likely success to resentments engendered by the union last time.

“Even if you had a DFL Legislature, it would still pass this year, because Education Minnesota overplayed their hand,” said one lobbyist who has worked on education issues. “They twisted so many arms, and some of those arms broke.”

‘A litmus test’

Republicans have long been openly critical of the DFL-allied union, but the rift grew wider last spring after a committee hearing held to discuss various education proposals, including alternative licensure. During the meeting, Dooher and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren sat at the committee table ongside lawmakers instead of in the gallery or at the testifying table. Republicans cried foul at the unseemliness of it, and argued that the gesture treated the union as  a de facto part of government. Shortly afterward, the House voted 128-2 to approve a resolution brought by the Republican minority that barred lobbyists and executive branch members from sitting at the committee table with lawmakers.

But Republicans aren’t the onlyones frustrated with the group. Some Democrats felt pressure from the union over the alternative licensure issue during the session, and reached a breaking point on the campaign trail when Education Minnesota refused to endorse some of their DFL colleagues in tough re-election races.

The outgoing K-12 Education Finance Division Committee chair, DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling, said some DFL legislators are upset that the union did not endorse Rep. Marsha Swails, who ultimately lost her re-election bid. “They have made this a litmus test, and it didn’t work so well for them,” said Greiling. “How do they like it now? When you are so choosy about your friends that you end up with more enemies, you’re put in a tough spot.”

Education Minnesota put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the elections, almost all of it on Democrats. The union also initially endorsed House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher before the DFL gubernatorial primary. While they inevitably threw their support behind Democratic Governor-elect Mark Dayton, many say he is open to some kind of alternative licensure and is by no means in the pocket of the teacher’s union. Dayton taught at public schools in New York before his career in politics. Republicans say he did so through alternative licensure programs.

“Dayton is more of a free agent to do what he thinks is best for students,” Greiling said. She speculated that Dayton will likely use the proposal to leverage budget negotiations or even give his tax proposals more appeal. “They’re not going to get something for nothing,” she said.

Dayton spokeswoman Katie Tinucci said administration insiders haven’t dug into any specific policy proposals while working through the transition process, but they intend to sit down with the new education commissioner to talk policy once one is officially named. A slew of names are being bandied about as potential candidates, including Greiling and outgoing state Sen. Kathy Saltzman. Neither pick would likely sit well with the union, as they have both publicly bucked Ed Minn in the past and supported alternative licensure.

Education reform, take two

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, brought a bill last session that would establish a two-year limited teaching license and a pathway to full licensure for those with a bachelor’s degree and a high grade-point average. The change would target districts or charter schools where there is a teacher shortage, an achievement gap or where existing teaching staff is not as diverse as the student population.  The bill stalled in committee.

This year, Garofalo said, his bill will incorporate Mariani’s ideas. But the new chair of the House Education Finance committee is refusing to get too specific before the bill is formally introduced. He expects the proposal to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike. “We are going to hear the traditional excuses from the teacher’s union,” Garofalo said, “but I expect that you are going to see a strong emphasis that this will create jobs and improve the economy from all members.”

The business community is also beefing up to push the proposal next session. A newly formed education reform group, MinnCan (Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now), plans to push alternative licensure and other issues next session.

The group is led by Vallay Varro – the sister of retiring DFL state Sen. Mee Moua – and its board is populated by business execs from 3M, Medtronic and Qwest, along with former DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Penny and Republican Gov. Al Quie. The organization will have a staff of three in Minnesota, for which they are currently interviewing.

“Because of Education Minnesota’s pressure to say no on this issue, it has raised the dander of the business community to push back,” the lobbyist said. “You get into this arms race of lobbying – one side builds and so does the other.”

DFL state Sen. Terri Bonoff, who brought alternative licensure and a number of other education issues forward in a bill last session, also plans to bring proposals forward again. This year, she hopes things go differently with the union.

“I am hoping that we strike a different tone in our negotiating relationship with Education Minnesota,” she said. “I hope that they are open to moving beyond these particular issues.”

But Dooher said he isn’t looking to “just pass the reform of the day,” calling alternative licensure a “noisy distraction” to the issues plaguing education.  “It’s easy to say someone is an obstructionist if you don’t get your way, but schooling is a complex issue,” Dooher said, adding that the achievement gap, education funding, teacher evaluations and alternative teaching pathways are all part of a big-picture proposal the union is working on. “We need to address students’ needs and make sure that we are providing the educators the tools they need to solve any problems.”

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