Published Online: March 17, 2010

Minn. Teachers’ Union Battles Race to the Top Changes

Whether Minnesota would submit a second application for hundreds of millions in federal education grants was in doubt Tuesday as the powerful state teachers union came out against a teacher licensing bill that would help the bid.

The measure would make it easier for experts in their fields to get into classrooms, and passing it is considered an important piece of a possible second application for federal "Race to the Top" funds.

Earlier this month, Minnesota's 1,000-page application for $330 million in funding wasn't picked as a finalist for the $4.35 billion in school reform grants. A second round of applications will be accepted in June.

"It could have made a difference in getting that grant this year," said Sen. Teri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who presented the licensing bill to the Senate Education Committee. "We would like to have every chance we can."

The federal grants are designed to spur states to lift student achievement by developing strong standards, pay-for-performance teacher compensation plans, alternative licensing and turning around low-performing schools.

The teachers union, Education Minnesota, opposes many of those reforms; President Tom Dooher called them "simply gimmicks" on Tuesday. Since the governor's office blamed the union's opposition for tripping up the first application, it's unclear how a second application would fare without some compromise.

After the Senate Education Committee narrowly approved Bonoff's bill, Commissioner Alice Seagren said a second application would depend on lawmakers approving the education reforms Washington wants.

"If we continue to have movement in the Legislature, I think we will go forward with it," she said, adding. "I'm not sure we can if other education groups, meaning one, continue to put roadblocks in our way."

Under Bonoff's bill, candidates could get a limited teaching license from the state Board of Teachers for up to two years if they have a bachelor's degree and pass an exam. While teaching with the limited license, the teacher would work toward getting a standard license.

At the end, Bonoff said, the teacher who came through the alternative licensing procedure would meet the same standards as teachers who graduated from the state's traditional teacher-training programs.

The Senate passed a similar bill last session, but it didn't get out of the House.

Dooher said the bill is "lowering standards when we're trying to raise standards for students."

He called for work on another "Race to the Top" application to begin immediately and said the union was ready to sit down with the Education Department. Despite the policy differences between the two, he said it was possible for an application to win approval both from Minnesota teachers and the U.S. Department of Education.

"I believe it is," he said. "We are not going to let these obstacles get in the way. We are going to fight to make sure that what's in there is research-based and it does what Minnesota needs."

Dooher also presented the union's legislative plan for closing the educational achievement gap between white students and racial minorities. It includes reducing class sizes to 18 students in struggling schools. The plan does not yet have a price tag.

Seagren said she was open to suggestions, but noted criteria for the "Race to the Top" grants were very specific. "I think the devil is in the details about what some people say is effective and what the federal criteria are," she said.

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