Minneapolis Artists Test Private-Practice Model in Public Schools

By Susan Hooper — September 04, 1985 5 min read

With the backing of a regional foundation and the cooperation of a local school system, a group of four Minneapolis artists will test an unusual idea this fall: that teachers, like lawyers, should incorporate as a business and sell their services to clients-in this case, public schools.

The Partners in Arts of Minneapolis, as the group calls itself, may be among the first teachers in the country to test this “private-practice” concept.

The four--who teach drama, music, poetry, and visual arts--will spend the fall semester in South St. Paul’s Washington Elementary School and the spring session at the district’s high school. Each partner will spend one day a week in the school, using art to assist the school’s staff in teaching core-curriculum subjects, according to district officials.

The Minneapolis-based Northwest Area Foundation, which contributed $40,000 to fund the Partners’ work in the South St. Paul school district, “was interested in supporting the experiment because it will eventually provide a new way to deliver educational services,” said Judith Healey, the foundation’s vice president.

Interest and Skepticism

Spokesmen for national teachers’ organizations say they have not heard of any such program elsewhere in the country. In the Minneapolis area, however, the idea has awakened interest--and skepticism--among teachers, administrators, union officials, and public-policy analysts.

Its supporters there say private-practice teaching is a way both for teachers to have more control over their work and for school districts to hire teachers for subjects with limited enrollments.

Representatives of Minnesota teachers’ unions, however, oppose the arrangement, saying that private- practice teaching is just one more way for school districts to cut corners in providing services.

Ms. Healey, of the Northwest Area Foundation, suggested, however, that the concept would be valuable in rural areas, where mall districts could share private-practice teachers in order to give students access to subjects that might otherwise be unavailable.

“You can spread expertise by this practice, rather than confining it to one district,” Ms. Healey said. In addition to funding the South St. Paul project, the foundation is also supporting further study of the private-practice concept by two districts in Washington State.

Going Into Business

Those who support private-practice teaching say the arrangement gives teachers the same opportunity enjoyed by many other professionals: the right to go into business for themselves.

“I wanted to expand my markets, and get into other areas outside of traditional schools,” said Maren Hinderlie, founder of the Partners.

Ms. Hinderlie--an actress, storyteller, and former public-school teacher--said that in forming the group she had thought, “If I were working in the school system, but were entering with a different image and at a different level, the potential for what I did having a lasting effect would be greater.”

The Partners’ plans include incorporating as a business and contracting with other schools, businesses, and public-service agencies to provide arts-related services. Although aware of the “risk” involved in the new venture, Ms. Hinderlie said she sees the “flexibility” of the arrangement as its most important benefit.

If private-practice teaching takes hold, Ms. Hinderlie predicted, “the kinds of educational opportunities can increase, in terms of what districts can offer a specialist.”

‘Climate’ Isn’t Right

Although he is pleased to have the Partners in his schools, David Metzen, superintendent of the South St. Paul district, is quick to point out that the district would not be supporting private-practice teachers if its own funds were involved.

“Would we do it with local funds? No, we would not,” Mr. Metzen said. “We don’t have the funds available, and I don’t think the political climate is right for it.”

The presence of private-practice teachers is bound to cause anxiety among a school’s permanent staff, Mr. Metzen said. To his own teachers, “one of the things I said up front was that this program would not cost anyone their jobs. You first have to make a commitment to your own staff.”

Union Opposition

The South St. Paul district teachers are represented by the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Edward Bolstad, executive secretary of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, said the union has been “very leery” of the Partners experiment.

“We’re trying to watch to see that it doesn’t replace existing work, and is not using school funds,” Mr. Bolstad said. The union’s opposition to private-practice teaching, he said, is for the “simple reason that it’s replacing work done by the people contracted to do it.”

“Our law in Minnesota is very clear: The bargaining agent has the responsibility for the instruction of youngsters in the school system,” Mr. Bolstad noted.

Regarding the possible benefits to teachers of forming private practices, Mr. Bolstad said, “The question is: How does it affect the youngsters, and what is the impact on teachers who have spent a career trying to do this? Is it doing anybody any good, or is it just a plan to cut costs?”

Teachers as Consultants

Both the principal of the Washington Elementary School and one of the Partners, however, see the pilot program’s teachers not as replacements for the district’s permanent staff, but as consultants.

“We would hope to use them to develop our creative-arts program, and then be on our own,” said Karen Ferguson, the school’s principal. ''I see them more as consultants than teachers.”

“I see it as all adjunct,” said Cheryl Paschke, a Partners member who has been a full-time public-school music teacher in Minneapolis. “In no way do I see it as replacing” the regular teachers, she said, “but I see it as a way of teaching that will be very valuable for the kids.”

Fear of the Unknown

Theodore Kolderie, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and one of the early advocates of private-practice teaching in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, attributes resistance to the idea, in part, to fear of the unknown.

“It’s a part of the problem you have with any change like this,” Mr. Kolderie said. “When you come along with a proposal for anything new and different, you’ve got to meet a test of absolute perfection. But if you had to hold the existing system to the same test, this system begins to look increasingly good by comparison.”

In addition, Mr. Kolderie argues, private-practice teaching is a timely concept in a period when much is being made of the professionalization of teachers.

“How do you have a discussion about making teachers more professional without giving them the kinds of arrangements that other professions have?” he asked.

Private-practice teaching, he suggested, holds “the potential for improvement of education, by making teachers the doorway for improvement of things.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week as Minneapolis Artists Test Private-Practice Model in Public Schools


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