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Dynamics change for K-12 lobbying ‘cartel’

Briana Bierschbach//August 5, 2011

Dynamics change for K-12 lobbying ‘cartel’

Briana Bierschbach//August 5, 2011

Education Minnesota lobbyist Jan Alswager is the best-known face of the Capitol’s so-called “education cartel,” but 2011 saw her group lose clout in the face of GOP legislative control. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Influence of teachers union wanes while that of other groups grows

DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling has spent years wrangling with the likes of education lobbyists as groups tried to sway the former House K-12 finance chairwoman to change longstanding policies or win a bigger piece of the multibillion-dollar budget pie. But no other group was more persistent, or powerful, than the so-called “education cartel.”

“They were always against everything that Minnesota was doing, any kind of reform,” she said. “They were against charter schools, open enrollment, and they were against post-secondary education. They were of the mind that all schools should be the same and treated equally and they should have a monopoly on the kids. Years ago they were just kind of cowboys coming from all around giving legislators what-for.”

The so-called “cartel” has been a force in education policymaking and budgets for decades, locking together the lobbying arms of powerful education groups like the School Boards Association, the Association of School Administrators and Education Minnesota to support “traditional” education interests and advocate for more K-12 funding.

“Over the years they had really become a powerful force, even though they might downplay that,” an education lobbyist outside of the group said. “Other education lobbyists were scrambling to set up appointments with legislators and committee chairs or trying to catch them after committee. The cartel gets the committee chairs and sometimes even top leadership to come to them.”

But lobbyists and legislators alike see the group’s role morphing in a new political environment. Today Greiling describes the cartel more as a “toothless tiger,” settling for smaller legislative victories than it has historically won. The teachers union, which has angered Republicans over the years with its fervent opposition to things like alternative teacher licensure, has lost clout in the first Republican majority in nearly 40 years. The lowered profile of the union, however, has left an opening for other cartel lobbyists to enter the spotlight for the first time in decades.

“From the outside looking in, it seems like the cartel has a rift,” House Education Finance Chairman Pat Garofalo said. “The teachers union is left sitting by themselves.”

A ‘close-knit’ group

The “education cartel” is more like an exclusive club.

Fewer than 10 associations in the realm of education lobbying can call themselves members, including the teachers union Education Minnesota, the School Boards Association, the Association of School Administrators, the State High School League, the Elementary School Principals Association, the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, Schools in Equity for Education and the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

That number has fluctuated over time. For many years there were two teachers unions: the Minnesota Education Association and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers. Those groups merged in 1988 to create Education Minnesota, now a 70,000-member union and one of the dominating forces in the cartel. They are also the only member of the group with a substantial political arm and serious campaign influence.

Over the years, smaller factions of the Minnesota School Boards Association — such as the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts and schools in rural areas — came to believe the school board couldn’t adequately represent their diverging needs. They ultimately upped their individual lobbying efforts and were folded into the arms of the cartel.

Many of the individual lobbyists in the cartel are longtime Capitol veterans. Their ranks include School Boards Association Executive Director Bob Meeks, who has been in the role since 1975; State High School League lobbyist Roger Aronson; longtime Education Minnesota lobbyist Jan Alswager; and soon-to-be retired superintendent lobbyist Charlie Kyte, a regular news and radio commentator. It’s a “close-knit group,” Aronson said. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of commitment to lobby on education.”

Aronson dates the group back to pre-Internet days at the Capitol, when the lobbyists would hold Friday luncheons to discuss their plans — the same day the committee schedule for the following week was posted. They have come a long way since then. Today the coalition has formed what they call the “BELL” group, which brings legislative leadership and education committee chairs into the same room with members of the cartel to talk about education policy.

By Kyte’s account, the lobbyists have a formidable impact on what happens in education affairs across the state. Kyte said the main role of the group over the years has been to advocate for more funding for K-12 education. In 2007, the cartel banded together to push for some of the largest increases in special education funding in state history.

But its role has also been to fight off language in bills that the cartel sees as “hurtful to educators and students,” such as open enrollment, vouchers and pay-for-performance proposals, a position that has put them at odds with other education lobbyists from outside the cartel’s umbrella.

Sam Walseth, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Rural Education Association who formerly lobbied for education groups outside of the cartel, said, “If you’re sitting in an education committee, you’re going to have on one side of the committee the traditional public school interests, or cartel, and on the other side you’ll have the charter schools and parent advocate groups.”

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce education lobbyist Cecilia Retelle — who fought the teachers union on the alternative teacher licensure issue — says the cartel is only interested in protecting the status quo. “Basically it’s a group that doesn’t want anything to change and doesn’t want to pass anything that would be hard to implement,” she said. “Their interest is in being able to continue to do that.”

Most members of the group cringe when they hear the “cartel” moniker. “We are more like a dysfunctional family,” Walseth said. “We rally together when there is a crisis, but when the crisis is over, we squabble and battle amongst ourselves. I will often fight with the metro area members over funding. The idea that there is one block of us working in lock step really isn’t always the case. We joke that someday we should actually act as a cartel so we can get something done.”

Aronson laughs at the “cartel” nickname, allegedly bestowed on the group by former DFL Senate Education Chair man and Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller. “We are highly overrated,” he said. “I do chuckle about it because if we really were a cartel, we would have school start before Labor Day.”

New dynamic, new role

It was clear from the get-go that the cartel would play a different part in policymaking during the 2011 session.

The newly minted Republican majorities charged forward on alternative teacher licensure, an issue that was rebuffed hard by the teachers union in the 2010 session and ultimately failed. The proposal was in the first round of bills introduced by Republicans in both chambers, and as the proposal came up in committees, other members of the cartel came out in favor. In fact, every single association in the cartel — save the teachers union — supported the legislation. Within the first months of the session, the bill had made it through committees, off the floor and to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk. And in a ceremonious, bipartisan event, the governor signed the bills.

“With the Democrats always in control of at least one of the chambers, they knew certain reforms weren’t going to go anywhere so they just focused on getting more money,” Garofalo said. “In the past [the cartel] just wouldn’t bring [reforms] up because the [teachers] union was against them and the Legislature wouldn’t pass them, so why bother?”

With the union out of favor this session, Garofalo said Kyte raised the profile of the Association of School Administrators. Kyte teamed up with Republicans to work on reforms to require more frequent teacher evaluations, eliminating a staff development funding requirement and ending penalties for schools that don’t have teacher contracts settled by Jan. 15 each year. The union fought many of these issues.

“This year [MASA] has been really helpful in teaming up on reform,” Garofalo said. “The 2010 elections really changed everything for the teachers union. Before, they oversaw all of the education groups. But the outcome of the elections significantly reduced their clout.”

House Republican Education Reform Chairwoman Sondra Erickson agrees. “Jan Alswager and I get along just fine,” she said. “We have a good relationship, we like each other, but their agenda is sometimes the opposite of all of the others. Charlie Kyte said that this year was the first time that he recalled when the other education groups in the cartel really felt they got their voices heard.”

Despite sharing cartel status with the union, Walseth said he was happy to see Education Minnesota get challenged by the new Republican majorities. The rural school districts he represents have long supported alternative teacher licensure as a means to compete with the alluring metro job market. “Quite frankly it’s nice to see,” Walseth noted. “They need to be challenged. There is a lopsided political dynamic in the education community. In education, you really have one big political player with the teachers union and then everyone else.”

The shrinking pool

Things are only going to get more difficult for the cartel, as education funding gets hit along with everything else in the state’s budget.

“We are now at the point where K-12 is getting hit,” former Senate DFL Education Chairman Steve Kelley said. “That is a big force that is putting pressure on every portion of the cartel. This battle is over how to divide up a shrinking pool of resources and who is going to have the bargaining power.”

Greiling, who has worked well with the cartel in the past, was unhappy with their willingness to offer up an expanded K-12 school shift during session in lieu of permanent cuts to education. In the final budget deal, Dayton and GOP legislators delayed $2.2 billion in payments to schools, an addition of over $700 million more to the shift enacted in the last biennial budget.

Walseth acknowledges that the shift, despite being offered up by education lobbyists, will likely be an area of focus for the cartel next session. “Something tells me you can’t just borrow $2.2 billion and not have a plan to pay for it,” he said. “Something tells me we need to get organized around this and what this means long term … Otherwise what’s going to stop them from going to a 50:50 shift, or more?”

By Greiling’s account, the coalition needs to regroup to make a game plan before legislators convene next session. “Maybe this time they need to figure out what they are for and play some offense next session instead of defense,” she said. “I’d like to see them be a real cartel again if they can find something valuable to push for.”

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