GOP senator fears rollback of reforms in 2014
Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, has been tackling the complex issue of teacher evaluation since he arrived at the Capitol. As a House freshman in 2011, Petersen played a central role in crafting a new system of teacher evaluations that passed as part of that year’s education bill.
Heading into the 2012 elections, Petersen took advantage of an open seat and moved up to the Senate. By the time he arrived in 2013, the makeup of the Legislature had changed dramatically. So, too, had the tone of the conversation about teacher evaluations.
Heading into next year, Petersen is pessimistic about the DFL majorities’ willingness to leave that provision in place, despite its being passed with the support of Gov. Mark Dayton.
“[Dayton’s] public statements are very favorable,” Petersen said, “and I think he likes to talk about it as a signature policy achievement.”
Despite that cause for mild optimism, Petersen said he fears he and other reform-minded lawmakers will spend the coming session “playing defense,” and trying to save changes that have yet to go into full effect — such as the law’s move to require that students’ performance figure prominently in the evaluations of their teachers. Capitol Report spoke with Petersen on Thursday.
Capitol Report: Having gone through a session with the DFL back in control, how do you think the two parties differ in their thinking about teacher evaluations?
Sen. Branden Petersen: It’s been somewhat concerning since the DFL’s taken control of both of the chambers. There have been a couple different attempts to modify the statute. At the 11th hour last year, they snuck in that provision to delay teacher evaluation, which was something that was never heard in any committee. Which, to me, was a premeditated move — you don’t make a change like that that you haven’t considered, a decision that has statewide implications. Those sorts of things don’t inspire the most confidence.
CR: The student performance aspect of teacher evaluations is obviously one of the most controversial. How do you think people should think about that?
Petersen: I would ask people, if you’re not considering student achievement and student outcomes, what does the institution exist for? The entire institution exists to promote academic achievement for students. So to suggest somehow that that data isn’t relevant, when it comes to making value judgments about schools and educators themselves, is way off base.
And I think when you talk to parents and community stakeholder, they care about it too. The law accounts for a system of multiple measures, and every piece of research that exists suggests that a multiple-measured approach to evaluation is the right approach. We’re not suggesting that a test score is the end all, be all of an evaluation, but we are saying it should be considered.
CR: Another controversial part of this debate is tying teacher pay or tenure into teacher evaluations. How do you think those should be incorporated?
Petersen: I don’t think any of that’s going to happen this session. Performance-based pay has never been something that the union has supported — and by extension the Democrats in St. Paul. And ditto for anything with continuing contract negotiations. If you’re asking what I think about those things, I think it makes sense to differentiate people’s compensation for the work that they actually do. I don’t think that is the central driving factor behind why teachers do what they do. But I think when you’re talking about high-need areas recruiting the sort of game-changing people they need, I think that’s a place where differentiated compensation can be a tool.
CR: Education Minnesota had a recent change in leadership. Have you sensed any difference since the change in leadership?
Petersen: I’ve seen no indication that Education Minnesota is interested in a meaningful way in engaging in the reform conversation. They’ve given lip service to the idea that they support teacher evaluations, but have never really made a commitment to making sure that transparency and student outcomes are a part of the system. As a disclaimer: When I say those things, I’m talking about Education Minnesota leadership. There are thousands of teachers … who are interested, and not afraid at all of being held accountable for student outcomes.
CR: The phrase that everyone heard a lot this last year was “unfunded mandate,” suggesting that the state was asking school districts to come up with an estimated $250 million. Should there be concern if this is something that’s in law but not budgeted for?
Petersen: I would just reject your premise. To me, the idea that … in order for everything to be paid for there needs to be a categorical funding stream, is sort of ridiculous. If you agree that performance management of staff is a core function of any organization, then that’s what basic funding aid is for. We don’t have a categorical funding stream for textbooks, or desks. It doesn’t surprise me that the entrenched education establishment is using it as a wedge to ask for more money. I would imagine that we will hear this “unfunded mandate” thing in perpetuity, and it will always be a reason why they need more money.
CR: Pilot programs for teacher evaluation are now running in certain districts, and are expected to be part of the 2014 session debate. Would you prefer to buy a little bit of time this session and let those pilots run longer?
Petersen: I’m interested to see what [the Department of Education’s] findings are, given the fact that the pilots will not be completed. I would caution against making any real summary judgments about whatever they come to the Legislature with. I guess I would ask why we are hurrying to make alterations or recommendations, when we can just as well come back in a budget year — when, frankly, most hard decisions are made.
Why not let the pilots just play out? What I’m afraid of is that the DFL leadership is going to make expedited decisions because they hold the majority. And that shouldn’t be the rationale for decision making, as a political dynamic.
CR: Next year is an election year. The DFL has control, and could be thinking about a day when it might not. Can you imagine finding common ground with the majority this session?
Petersen: I would imagine it’s in the governor’s interest not to gut his signature policy achievement in an election year. And I’ll be the first one to call him out on that if it happens. Frankly I’ve been somewhat encouraged by the governor’s resistance to some of these more union-backed changes. I would hope that he would hesitate for a number of reasons, including political, to make decisions that would take the teeth out of the teacher evaluation law.