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Math lesson: Education bill numbers reflect priorities

A bill by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka — mirroring the teacher-layoff provisions in House File 2 —was entered as Senate File 97 and garnered just two co-authors, both Republicans. (File photo)

A bill by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka — mirroring the teacher-layoff provisions in House File 2 —was entered as Senate File 97 and garnered just two co-authors, both Republicans. (File photo)

Generally speaking, the numerical order of bill introductions functions as a pretty reliable indicator of caucus priorities, especially in the early days of a legislative session. This is obviously the case with House File 2, the Republicans’ marquee education bill this session, which would make it easier to hire teachers from other professions or states and incorporate teacher evaluations into layoff decisions.

If lower numbers mean higher priorities, the numeral assigned to Sen. Terri Bonoff’s (DFL-Minnetonka) bill — mirroring only the layoff provisions in HF 2 — is hardly reassuring. Bonoff’s legislation was entered as Senate File 97, and garnered just two co-authors, both Republicans.

Even less encouraging? The full Senate companion to HF 2, chief-authored by Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, was the 473rd Senate bill filed this year and, at present, has no DFL co-authors.

Education reform advocates always knew the Senate would be a much more challenging audience for teacher layoffs and licensure, and got a taste of that reality during a Thursday morning hearing in the Senate Education Committee. In fact, Thursday’s date serves as some measure of the Senate DFL’s interest: Bonoff waited nearly two months for a first hearing after entering her bill.

That delay was not lost on Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, a co-author on both bills, who pointed out the myriad issues the committee had held hearings on before getting to the more controversial matters of hiring and firing teachers.

“To the issue, frankly, of peopling saying that people are under attack, and we’re, quote-unquote, ‘obsessed’ with this issue, this is the first hearing this year that I’ve been in where we’ve talked about it,” Petersen said.

Committee chair Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, responded that the committee had discussed similar, if not identical measures earlier this year, and said he thought there was a “great agreement” in place on teacher licensure changes.

“There’s … progress that’s been made in different parts,” Wiger said, “albeit, there’s a debate ahead on other items.”

And what a debate it figures to be — or was, already. Thursday’s committee hearing saw extensive testimony from supporters and opponents, with most professional advocates falling along a fairly predictable spectrum. Business groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, testified on behalf of changes to the licensing and layoff statutes, while the Education Minnesota teachers union produced a number of legal experts and current teachers to criticize the bill proposals.

Other organizations took slightly more nuanced stances. Valerie Dosland, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Asociation of School Administrators, said Pratt’s bill would pose “technical and logistical challenges” to some smaller districts, though she said the organization was mostly in favor of the bill. Also supporting that bill is the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, though, as its lobbyist Roger Aronson commented, those principals would themselves be subject to the same performance-driven layoffs.

As he introduced his proposal, Pratt tried first to dispel what he thought were media or advocacy distortions of the bill, telling the committee that “community experts” would be used only in districts or charter schools that were unable to locate a qualified educator, and that they would not be used to replace licensed teachers.

On the measure to end “last-in, first-out” considerations in teacher layoffs, Pratt observed that he was one of five committee members who had previously sat on a district school board.

“I know I wished I had been able to use more (seniority) in my decision-making process when we had to make budget cuts, and cut teachers,” he said.

Testifying on the teacher licensing provisions in HF 2, Erin Doan, executive director of the Board of Teaching, said that body supported changes proposed in a competing bill from Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, and said the House GOP’s bill goes too far. One piece of the Republican bill allows for in-classroom teaching by a person who has only a bachelor’s degree.

Doan testified that proposal goes against seven-year deliberative evaluation by the teaching board, which recommended that positions be reserved for those with a master’s degree or higher.

“The expectations that are required really insist that there must be experience … not always found in those who are new college graduates,” Doan testified.

Both Pratt and Bonoff tried to reframe the issues as nonpartisan matters; Pratt’s testifiers included Eli Kramer, a charter school teacher who had previously campaigned for Gov. Mark Dayton, and Denise Dittrich, a former DFL state representative who now lobbies for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

But the lines of questioning that came forth during the hearing suggested the two caucuses stand on opposite sides. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, asked Derek Olson, a former recipient of Education Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year award, if “competition and collaboration could not work together” to improve teacher performance.

Approaching from the other side of the debate, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, asked where layoffs factored in to the need for a better — and better-funded — training and evaluation system for new teachers.

“Please tell me,” Torres Ray said, “where seniority fits, where contract and seniority system pieces fit into that system of induction and evaluation.”

Her challenge would go unanswered, at least for the day: Wiger explained that Thursday’s hearing was reserved to focus on input from testifiers, though he predicted the senators would be speaking to each other “a lot” about the topic in the weeks to come.

It was not clear whether Wiger was referring to private meetings or more public hearings; as of Friday morning, no future education committee agendas had been posted through the end of March.


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