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Minneapolis Parents Want More Say

As school districts grapple with problems of student achievement and finances, maybe it’s time for them to listen to the parents.

Put Kids First Minneapolis has issued a challenge to the Minneapolis school board: Change your personnel policies to put kids, not adults, first. In brief, they want the board to change the factory-union model of staffing: Give principals the authority to hire and fire the teachers they want. Currently, school leaders have an overly difficult time in firing poorly performing teachers. When they hire, they are forced by district policy and contract to hire from within the existing teaching pool–even if they can’t find a teacher who is a good fit for the school.

As negotiations between the board and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers on a new contract commence, Putting Kids First calls on both parties to have the talks in public.

All of this–their call for personnel reform as well as subjecting negotiations to open-meeting requirements–sounds good to me. But will it happen? What incentive does the board and the union have to make these changes? Little aside from political pressure from a small group of advocates, all of whom (I would guess) are part-time activists.

Teacher unions have a near-death grip on school boards across the country, and I doubt it’s much different in Minneapolis. For one thing, elections to school boards are scheduled in such a way that few people even know when they’re happening. (Did you know that school board elections occurred in Minnesota about a month ago?) That gives the adults with a financial stake in the current system an advantage over parents of students, and taxpayers generally.

The recommendations of Putting Kids First Minneapolis are laudable. They would stand a better chance of being realized were the education sector a fully competitive one, in which schools could be opened and closed as easily as a garden-variety business, based on supply (entrepreneurial education specialists) and demand (parental satisfaction).

Instead, we have something else in the education sector: The end consumers (parents and students) have limited options when it comes to selecting a school. Everything about the schools themselves, from curriculum to discipline to hiring practices, are highly regulated by federal and state law, as well as by a culture that prizes adherence to bureaucratic rules. Would-be school operators, meanwhile, are hamstrung by various policies. (Consider, for example, that charter-school start-ups face various disadvantages compared to public school districts.)

A system of universal vouchers — plus a raft of other reforms — would help address the concerns that Putting Kids First Minneapolis lays out. At the least, it would give school leaders, school boards, and even teacher unions incentives to be nimble, reformist, responsive, and effective. But Putting Kids First Minneapolis opposes vouchers, so they’re relying on political pressure. Unfortunately, that’s like building a house with a limited toolbox.

The Education Action Group, a national organization that has tangled with teacher unions, has more on the story of Putting Kids First and the ongoing negotiations.

Burnsville Teacher Union Drops Q Comp

Before the bold education reforms of governors Mitch Daniels (Indiana) and Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Minnesota enacted a modest reform called Q Comp. This approach to teacher pay took a hit recently when the teacher union in one south metro school district decided to reject higher pay in favor of a union scale.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 50 school districts have signed onto the program, which was enacted in 2005. (Proportionately, charter schools are much more likely to participate. The department says that 54 charter schools participate.)

Only two of the give component of Q Comp involve evaluating teachers or paying for performance, and even then, there’s not much there. The law requires that only 60 percent of teacher pay be based on teacher performance. Strike that. The law requires that 60 percent of the increases in teacher pay be based on teacher performance.

According to ThisWeek publications, 90 percent (30 votes out of 33) of the leadership of the Burnsville Education Association voted against going forward with a revamped version of the program. That kills Q Comp within the district, since the law does not require districts to participate. The union’s president said they rain into “basically a time crunch” in coming to an agreement. The article also cited a recent history of mistrust between the union and the administration.

The Legislature passed a more ambitious reform of teacher evaluation and compensation in the 2011 session, but the reform was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Unions, the Feds and School Budgets

Just a quick observation to start the week after a gorgeous, long Minnesota weekend. The Strib featured two front page articles on Labor Day: one was entitled ” Students Pay Price for Cuts in Education” and the other, noting labor’s disappointment with Obama and a shift  of focus to the states as the main battleground, was called “ Union Optimism Fades to Frustration“.

As I contemplated the juxtaposition of these articles, I wondered why the reporters did not think to ask the school districts whether they would welcome the kind of flexibility and big savings that Wisconsin schools are now enjoying  following the changes in collective bargaining (which allow schools to now competitively contract for things like health care benefits for teachers).

When an operating budget declines, whether it is a school district or private business, the managers should be able to cut expenses to deliver a quality product to its customers. In the case of schools, we tie the hands of district managers with expensive and inflexible union contracts for teachers and staff.

And then there was Teamster Jimmy Hoffa’s indelicate remarks about the tea party over the weekend when introducing President Obama for his Labor Day speech: “President Obama, this is your army, we are ready to march,” Hoffa said. “But everybody here’s got to vote. If we go back, and keep the eye on the prize, let’s take these son-of-a-bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong.”  Apparently, the president had no comment.  Read more at Fox News….

Then this morning I saw that thanks to former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, we are spending millions of federal tax dollars on sidewalks  to encourage kids to walk to school, while districts struggle with reduced operating budgets. (Walking to school may or may not be a “good thing” but is this a smart way to spend federal tax dollars? And why are the feds directing this kind of local decision? Education–and sidewalks— are not a core function of the federal government; it belongs to states, local government and school districts. Duh.)

It is time for Minnesota to join its Midwest neighbors and reform collective bargaining rights for public employees so that school districts can both deliver a high quality education to our children while honoring excellence in teaching. Taxpayers are tired of being bullied by the unions–and we suspect many public employees feel the same way.


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