School Choice & Charters Opinion

Wise Bill Gives District Teachers Money to Help Start New Schools

By Joe Nathan — April 14, 2015 7 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss a Minnesota bill giving district public school teachers start-up funds to create new schools.

Joe Nathan begins:

Deb, Jim Bartholomew and Louise Sundin often do not agree on education issues. Bartholomew lobbies for the Minnesota Business Partnership, the state’s largest corporations. Sundin is former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and former American Federation of Teachers vice-president. But last week they agreed. They both supported a bill with bi-partisan support that Minnesota legislators are considering. The bill would provide startup funds, helping district public school teachers create “teacher led schools.” Both chief authors, Senator Greg Clausen, and Representative Roz Peterson, have district public school experience.

It’s a fascinating, encouraging agreement. The bill also has support from Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and Don Sinner, president of the Lakeville Teachers Association, plus several superintendents and Megan Hall, Minnesota 2013 Teacher of the Year. The coalition already has produced a law permitting site-governed schools.

The new legislation would provide startup funds.

Here’s part of what Sundin told legislators: “One antidote to keep the most experienced and proven from leaving and to attract some of the most intelligent and skilled we always hoped would follow us into this work: Teacher-Powered Schools. If you know the characteristics of Millennials, you know that they are attracted to even the title as well as the opportunities and the experience. Finally, they can create and shine and have autonomy and be respected as well as taking full responsibility: Respect & Responsibility = Results.

Professionally-powered schools give teachers the power to be true professionals - to make decisions about not just what to teach and how to teach but who will be their colleagues, how will they promote their school, how will they evaluate each other, how will they pay for new technology. The decisions are endless but the challenge is invigorating, inspiring, and the teams of educators are true colleagues and collaborators in creating, delivering, and deciding.”

Bartholomew testified: “The Minnesota Business Partnership has been a long-time advocate for giving teachers greater autonomy to design the program and services they believe will best help their students succeed. Not only is there a great deal of research supporting the role increased autonomy plays in student and school success, but we also see it in the high performing schools we’ve recognized over the past 9 years.”

A poll by Education Evolving, a Minnesota based, advocacy group found several fascinating things:

  • 85% of the public, and
  • 78% of educators think this is a good idea and 54% of educators say they are “very interested in working in such a school. Of course, details matter. There are many approaches to improving public schools. But the poll found widespread support for the idea that many district educators have great ideas about how to organize new public schools.

Deborah Meier responds:


I love it. It reminds me of the deal the Boston teacher’s union worked out in 1995 with the Boston administration for Pilot Schools. Most are not teacher led, but all have substantial autonomy, which, alas, has whittled away with more and more Federal and State mandates which we can’t waive.

Teacher-led can mean teacher simply replacing a principal? I’ve seen these, and they are merely money-savers. Another model involves rotating teacher-directors. I like the Mission Hill school interpretation.

All decisions are made “democratically”. There is a Board that meets 4 times a year and is composed of an equal number of elected teachers, parents, and community members (and now) students. There are some decisions that require a majority of EACH constituency to pass. There is also agreement about what the staff can do on their own, and another list of what must be initiated by the staff but approved by the Board : new hires, major change in organization or curricular themes, graduation requirements, etc.

The principal is responsible for keeping his/her tunnel vision on the whole while teachers keep tunnel-vision on their classrooms. All are expected to know a lot about each other’s terrain which involve an hour or so a week to share perspectives plus a lot of transparency on a daily basis.

We (and some 20 other schools) have freedom over how we use our budget (including whether we want to pay the District for certain tasks), hiring, curriculum and assessment the staff evaluation plan and appeals process. The collective agreement covers salaries, benefits and (ah yes) seniority when layoffs are involved.

If the union were starting over from scratch I think they’d write into the agreement requirements for a more democratic, flat hierarchal structure--like Mission Hill’s.

Joe responds:

Deb, we agree on the value of giving opportunities within some limits for educators to create schools, open to all, that they think make sense. Sometimes districts asked teachers to help set up magnet schools. But sometimes central office administrators designed these.

For more than twenty years this has been available to educators in the charter sector of public education. Here’s a recent story of a California teacher who was able to create the kind of progressive public school she believes in.

Dawn Clawson, formerly a St. Paul Public School teacher, is another example. She tried for years with colleagues to create a new, progressive district option in St. Paul. Frustrated, she and her fellow teachers turned to chartering. It could have been a district public school.

If districts were open to this kind of thing, students would benefit. And, as Sundin pointed out, districts would retain more of their most creative, caring educators. Clawson writes:

“I came to teaching as a second career. I worked in hospital and research laboratories for 22 years before making the switch. When I started in my own classroom, I began teaching the way my own teachers had shown me back in the 1950s and 60s: stand in front of the class and pour out information that so the students could dutifully take notes, memorize, and learn it. It didn’t take me very long before I realized that this approach did not work for many of the teenagers in the 1990s. Society had changed and the students now expected to be a lot more actively engaged and involved.

I moved from a small parochial school to a large urban public high school and tried to make some changes in my classrooms while still working within a very traditional framework. It was not easy to introduce changes that were substantial enough to make any real difference. When a colleague told me of his dreams of a program that would take the students out of the building to do some of their learning in the natural world, I eagerly embraced the vision and worked to make it a reality. Through research into existing pedagogical models we found one that matched our goal of encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning, emphasizing active engagement between student, teacher, and the environment. We were attempting to bridge the gap between what was being taught and what the students retained, utilized, and truly learned.

Initially we hoped that the program could be established within the district, but after two years of working with the administrators, we realized that if our vision had any chance of success we would have to take it outside of the district and establish our program as a public charter school. Only by doing that could we ensure school-wide implementation of our approach, be in our own specially-designed space, and be able to depend on our specially-trained staff remaining with us and not getting re-allocated elsewhere within the district. So that is what we did, and River’s Edge Academy has now been in operation for five years. By starting this charter school we have attained our goal and have seen how changing the approach to teaching and learning has made a great difference in the lives of many students and their families.”

Opportunities to create new, innovative public schools should be available to district educators. We working hard to convince legislators, and heartened by comments such as Rep Peggy Bennett, a Minnesota state legislator and public school teacher who described the bill as “perhaps the most exciting proposal I’ve heard all year.”

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.