State Republicans take on teachers' union
By Don Davis
State Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL -- Republicans who control the Minnesota Legislature took on the state teachers' union Thursday, passing bills to freeze school pay for two years and providing professional workers an easier path to becoming teachers.
The Senate passed the pay freeze 36-29 and the House backed the teacher licensing procedure 72-59.
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said his bill to freeze school pay is needed because schools need help controlling their expanses.
Thompson blamed "a very powerful and strong statewide teacher union," Education Minnesota, for many of the expense problems. But the freeze would apply to all workers, not only teachers.
Besides the freeze, Thompson's bill also eliminates requirements to:
-- Devote 2 percent of a school budget to staff development.
-- Maintain the current level of mental health workers in schools.
-- Pay a penalty from school budgets of $25 per student if teachers and the district do not agree to a contract by Jan. 15.
Thompson said that without his bill, school districts will be forced to fire teachers because money will not be available to keep them on staff. He also warned that important curriculum elements may be dropped.
The state causes some of the problems, the senator said, because of requirements placed on schools.
"My mother taught me when you make a mess you better clean it up," Thompson said.
Education Minnesota's leader says freezing teacher pay does nothing to address school budget pressures.
"Minnesota will lose half its teaching force to retirement in the next decade or so," President Tom Dooher of the teachers' union wrote in a recent letter to the editor. "It's critical that we act now to recruit and retain the talented prospective candidates we need to teach our future students. That's already difficult enough, with starting pay for teachers averaging $33,000 per year."
Minnesota ranks 21st in teacher pay, Dooher said.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, lost an effort to amend Thompson's bill to allow the staff development elimination to last just for two years. He said that rural school districts, in particular, need staff development options.
Republicans, who were alone in supporting the bill, countered by saying that districts still could fund staff development; they just would not be required to pay for it if leaders felt the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The teacher licensing bill has been discussed before, but lost in part because Education Minnesota has opposed it.
Measure supporters say math and science teachers, especially, are in short supply. If people who work in those fields could teach, they say, it could help fill the positions.
The bill by Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, would allow the state to recognize experience of teaching candidates coming from other fields. They would be requires to take at least 200 hours of instruction learning how to teach.
Under the bill, the state may issue a two-year license to people who go through the alternative licensing process, and the new teacher must go through continued education to receive a full five-year teacher license.
"It is about putting the best and highest quality teachers to work in the classroom," Garofalo said.
Dooher said Education Minnesota supports alternative pathways to teaching, but thinks that teachers should be licensed only for subjects where they have degrees.
The House and Senate teacher licensing bills differ, so will go to a conference committee to work out differences.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.