Most political and advocacy organizations enjoy the luxury of operating outside of public scrutiny. The same can hardly be said for teachers unions. For some time now, labor organizations that represent America’s teaching professionals have been locked in a pitched battle over what is best for students.
Critics claim unions are standing in the way of long overdue reforms to the country’s public school system and argue that their leaders represent the status quo of a failing system. Unions, meanwhile, contend that they are unfairly maligned, and are in fact the best way to enact widespread and meaningful changes in the classroom.
As president of the Education Minnesota union, Denise Specht represents more than 70,000 teachers in the state. With 2014 winding down, Specht is preparing to represent those members during the legislative term that is set to begin in January.
One aspect of the union’s legislative agenda will call for additional investments in programs popular with teachers, including early childhood education. But Specht and Education Minnesota’s lobbying team will also look to beat back proposed changes that they see as counterproductive, especially now that reform-minded Republicans have taken control of the House.
Specht recently participated in an interview with Capitol Report to discuss pressing issues and preview education topics for the 2015 legislative session.
Capitol Report: We’re approaching the start of the 2015 session. What are your top policy priorities at this point?
Specht: We’re going to be working in four main areas this year. One is what we call a “full-service community school” approach. Another one is E-12 investments, which include school-based preschool, and also teacher development. We’re also going to focus on higher education investments, which include student grants and direct appropriations. And we’re also hoping to have a conversation about reducing the burden of standardized tests on schools and students.
CR: What about the budget? Would you want to see something similar to the budget passed by the DFL during the last two years?
Specht: The schools and our members are really appreciating the investments that were made in the last couple years. Things like all-day kindergarten are absolutely amazing, and we’re already seeing some really good results there. So we just want to expand on that — expanding school-based pre-K … provided by licensed educators is something we want to talk about. And then, what are we going to do on the other side of all-day K, how are we going to make sure all of our students are reading on grade level by third grade?
The other thing is we do want to better our conversation around the funding of teacher development and evaluation law. That’s one thing that didn’t quite happen the way we would’ve liked last year. The Legislature did provide one-time funding for school districts, mainly small and rural districts who are not in Q-Comp, to implement the law. But that was one-time money. We really need to get serious about finding ongoing funding to make sure the law is implemented and implemented well.
CR: There is a working group that is currently drafting recommendations on teacher evaluations and the Q-Comp program. What do you hope to see come out of that group?
Specht: We represent a number of members who are in Q-Comp. They’ve worked for a long time on creating a program that is insuring some good student success. We want to make sure we can honor some of those programs and the things they’ve put in place. But we recognize there is a big disparity, and inequity, between the school districts that have Q-Comp, and those that do not. Last year we worked hard to help the Legislature align how Q-Comp and the evaluation and development law work together. We want to make sure our school districts that have plans in place can maintain some of the good things they’ve been working on, but also bring some permanent funding into the teacher development and evaluation law.
CR: How do you imagine things are going to be different with Republicans in control of the House?
Specht: Our priorities won’t change, that’s for sure. But it definitely changes our expectations. We’re going to have to start building relationships and making sure that we’re talking to everybody who’s new at the Legislature, so they understand the things we’re bringing to the table. We definitely are going to have to take time to get to know the new faces, and talk to them about some of the solutions we’re bringing.
CR: There has been some talk about making labor unions subject to greater transparency in campaign finance. Do you disagree?
Specht: We file campaign reports, and we have to account for every penny that we spend. I’d have to wait and see how that would apply to us. Our donations come as volunteer donations. So, every one of our members contributes $15 per person. I think, to be on the safe side, I don’t want to expand on my answer without seeing a proposal. I don’t know how it would apply, so I’d hate to misspeak without seeing the details first.
CR: [House Speaker-designate] Kurt Daudt was critical of Education Minnesota for making a priority out of raising the minimum wage. Why did you think that was important?
Specht: Minimum wage affects the families that we work with. So, that does affect the work that we do. We did a member poll this past summer and asked our educators, what are the top challenges you see facing students? And they said things like family poverty, mental illness, special needs, bullying and hunger. So when we have educators that are naming … those as the top challenges that they’re facing, then minimum wage should be a priority. We can’t work in isolation. It is important for us to work with our allies and our communities to make the whole community better, because that’s going to make the school system better.
CR: How do you feel about the type and amount of statewide tests administered right now?
Specht: We definitely believe we need to be reducing the number of tests that are taken. We are losing learning time with all of the testing and test preparation time that is taking place. So we are looking for a reduction. We know No Child Left Behind has doubled the number of federally mandated tests that are taken. Our students are losing about a month of school time because of test prep and testing. And a lot of districts are doing their own testing in addition to the federally mandated tests, so that kind of exacerbates the testing problem.
CR: What’s your feeling right now of how the state would best address the racial achievement gap?
Specht: A lot of groups are going to be bringing different ideas to the table. I’m going to go back to … this concept of full-service community schools. There are places in the United States that are really seeing some phenomenal gains when they embrace the concept. We have a few of them here in Minnesota, and we would love to see Minnesota have more of them. Essentially, the model really gets back to those challenges educators and education professionals are seeing.
Basically, in a nutshell … it takes an assessment of the neighborhood. What are the needs out in the neighborhoods and the families that we serve? And, essentially, then, it brings the resources that the students, and families, and community need, right into the school. So the school becomes this resource hub, in addition to a place for teaching and learning. It allows for more of a 24-7, year-round use of a school to address those needs.
CR: Another issue expected to resurface, particularly now that Republicans control the House again, is what is in shorthand called “LIFO,” or last-in-first-out, as it relates to potential layoffs. Are you concerned about that?
Specht: I wouldn’t say I’m concerned. We just know that we’re going to be having those conversations. It’s perennial. We’ve got the same people bringing this up over and over again. As it relates to layoff regulations, how we come up with a process to deal with layoffs, I guess I would have to initially ask, “What problem are we trying to fix?” We just got done talking about all of the investments the Legislature has made into our school districts. And I didn’t hear any concern, or as many needs [from districts], to figure out how we lay people off.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.