An undue setback for Teach For America [UPDATED]Published 9:51am Friday, June 28, 2013 Updated 11:56am Friday, June 28, 2013
Twin setbacks for Teach for America in recent weeks look like steps back from much-needed education reform.
Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed $1.5 million in the higher-education funding bill for the organization that recruits and trains recent college graduates to teach in disadvantaged schools.
Next, the Minnesota Board of Teaching voted to no longer grant a waiver that streamlined the licensing process for members of the Teach for America corps and helped ease their way into classrooms.
Both actions are at issue in a state where the status quo — and lots of taxpayer dollars — haven’t eased an achievement gap between white students and their peers of color that’s among the nation’s largest.
The developments raise questions about our will to implement new approaches to address the gap and about union pressure and what, to many, looks like political payback. With no union dues to create campaign contributions for the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, the TFA movement is at a distinct disadvantage with the DFL in control of Minnesota state government.
In 2011, state lawmakers made way for alternative pathways to the classroom, including the Teach for America model that recruits best-and-brightest college graduates to classrooms where needs are greatest.
This year, the board decided to end a four-year practice of granting a general waiver, “leaving teachers and schools in limbo,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education reform group, MinnCAN.
It opted instead for individual review of license applications for the 43 Teach for America teachers recruited for Minnesota classrooms. Of those, 31 already have been hired by schools in the Twin Cities, Crystal Brakke, the organization’s local executive director, told us. Time is tight, with many teachers due to report for work in early August.
The 43 teachers, Brakke said, are a fraction of 1 percent of all the teachers in Minnesota. “I find it surprising and a little troubling that this is a priority for the statewide teachers’ union to spend time and effort on.”
“The veto is easy to view through a political lens,” Sellers said. This was a situation in which the teachers’ union “used an enormous amount of political pressure against a tiny program that didn’t have the resources to stand its ground.”
The June 14 action by the Board of Teaching was “a seminal point” in the discussion about Teach for America’s presence in Minnesota, Brian Sweeney of Charter School Partners told us.
He notes that several board members hold union leadership positions and he puts the results bluntly: “Almost a Minnesota Nice version of union thuggery.”
It’s a situation in which the board is implementing neither the intent nor the actual purpose of the law, Sweeney said. “They have opened themselves to a legal challenge. We’re looking at that.”
One factor holding back implementation: No group had yet come forward to become the alternative provider of certification programming.
Teach for America will apply to do so, Brakke told us. “We see that as absolutely the step we need to take.”
A statement from Charlene Briner, chief of staff at the Minnesota Department of Education, notes Gov. Dayton’s support for alternative licensure, and points out that it was the first bill he signed into law. The department “will continue to work with the Board of Teaching in support of getting highly qualified candidates in the classroom, whether through traditional or alternative pathways,” Briner said.
Karen Balmer, the board’s executive director, told us that, in the effort to find solutions, the state may already have a mechanism to allow a number of the Teach for America teachers to qualify for a one-year license without board action. Others would be required to seek permission from the board.
Teach for America’s recent experience in Minnesota is another example of resistance to reform movements and policies, said Kathy Saltzman, a former DFL lawmaker, now Minnesota state director of the reform group StudentsFirst.
She asks: “Were the interests of kids being considered? Was that the primary focus, or was it on representing other groups?”
If the public indeed wants education reform, it’s up to them to say so. Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka DFLer and chair of the Senate higher education committee, said the reason alternative licensure passed in the first place was because the public got involved and demanded it.
Then, once enacted, “people become complacent. They say it’s all worked out. But, in fact, it isn’t.”
“My colleagues and I who are committed to this are asking the public to get re-engaged,” she said, “to let the governor know we’re not happy with this, to let the Board of Teaching know that we find their actions simply wrong and to let the Department of Education know that we won’t tolerate going backward.”
Minnesota, it’s time to re- engage.
— St. Paul Pioneer Press