MINNEAPOLIS – Last week marked the beginning of contract talks between Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the local teachers union.
But this time around there’s a third voice that wants input at the bargaining table.
A coalition of concerned citizens is hoping to pressure the school board and the teachers union into changing the way teachers are hired, fired, evaluated, and assigned to classrooms.
The coalition, known as Contract for Student Achievement, is comprised of parents, pastors, business leaders, elected officials and taxpayers who want MPS’ staffing decisions to reflect the best interests of students, instead of school employees.
They say past teachers contracts have created a system that ignores the academic needs of students, particularly minority children. They believe that has led to an unacceptable achievement gap that must be addressed in the new collective bargaining agreement.
In other words, the taxpayers are reasserting ownership of the under-performing Minneapolis school district, despite the objections of the self-serving teachers union and the reservations of the school board. It’s a story that could – and should – be playing out in school districts across the nation.
Minneapolis schools facing a ‘human crisis’
Contract for Student Achievement members correctly see contract negotiations as the ideal time to have their voices heard in how local schools are run.
A typical teachers union contract contains provisions that affect nearly every facet of a public school system, ranging from employee compensation and staff assignments to the amount of time teachers spend with students.
“There’s a ton of stuff in those contracts. I doubt anybody understands all of it,” said Seth Kirk, a parent who is involved with the citizens organization, which began forming in 2009.
In an open letter to union and school board officials, the group states, “Minneapolis has the largest achievement gap in Minnesota, with white students more than twice as likely to pass state tests than their black, Latino and American Indian peers and with less than 35 percent of our students of color graduating on time.”
This is a “human crisis” that threatens to undermine the future economic prospects “for individuals, families and our entire city.”
CSA concludes that this is a “mass academic failure to thrive” and calls “on the district and the MFT to negotiate a different kind of contract – one that recognizes the academic crisis in our schools and makes student achievement the top focus.”
The group has identified five ways this should happen: shift to performance-based staffing; allow every Minneapolis school to hire from the widest possible talent pool; end forced placements of teachers in schools that do not choose to hire them; extend learning time for those (students) who need it; remove poor performing teachers.
Effectiveness, not seniority
The common theme to the CSA’s recommendations is that hiring, staffing and evaluation decisions should be made by school administrators, not the teachers union.
“Make effectiveness, not seniority, the chief criteria for teachers’ hiring, placement and lay-off decisions,” the letter reads.
The group notes that, “Under the current contract, all tenured teachers are guaranteed a job if there are any openings that fit their licensure. … Even if site leadership teams do not believe these teachers are an appropriate fit for their school or students. This must stop.”
That means ending the “last in, first out” approach to determining teacher layoffs, and the shuffling of ineffective teachers from one school to another, a practice commonly referred to as “The Dance of the Lemons.”
That concern became very real for Kirk a few years ago when his kids attended one of MPS’ Montessori-based schools. Kirk said the school was growing and adding teachers, even ones who weren’t trained in the specialized, multi-sensory style of education.
“The way the contract was structured, things such as seniority and rules about how teachers could be moved around were considered, but Montessori experience was not,” Kirk said. “That led me to wonder about the structural problem that caused this in the first place.”
The CSA also wants to “simplify and shorten the process for discharging chronically ineffective teachers to under 12 months.”
Under MPS’ current contract, underperforming teachers are placed in the Peer Assessment Review process, which can last 18 to 24 months. This affects only one percent of MPS teachers.
“Out of this one percent, less than half are dismissed, resign, or retire,” the group’s letter reads. “That means … 99.5 percent of our tenured teachers are considered effective. This isn’t credible for any profession.”
The skunk at the garden party
As contract talks begin, the teachers union has made it clear it sees no role for the citizens group.
“The group is well-intentioned, but their strategies are misguided,” MFT President Lynn Nordgren told StarTribune.com. “The teachers are the experts. For some reason, everybody else thinks they are the experts now.”
A new analysis shows the “experts” haven’t done such a swell job of running Minneapolis’ schools. MPS students outperform only 30 percent of their peers statewide in reading and math, according to the Global Report Card published by the George W. Bush Institute.
So it’s no small wonder why the Minneapolis teachers union doesn’t appreciate the community’s oversight.
What is perplexing is why school officials aren’t thrilled about the Contract for Student Achievement’s desire to be involved in negotiations. Kirk thinks school officials are wary of publicly embracing the group for legal reasons.
“If the board were to do something to whoop up public support for a certain position, they worry they could be charged with unfair labor practices,” Kirk told EAG. “I appreciate the general attitude of caution, but it does seem somewhat incongruent with their responsibility as elected officials.”
That’s one explanation for the reluctance of school officials. But a recent editorial by the Star Tribune offers another possibility.
According to the paper, “Four of the newest school board members signed a letter on MFT letterhead, admonishing the last board for its handling of contract negotiations.” Or put more honestly, they didn’t like the way the former board failed to give the union everything it wanted.
If school board members are sitting on the same side of the bargaining table as the teachers union, it’s obvious why they would not want taxpayers to know about it.
Whatever the reason, the Contract for Student Achievement coalition is about as welcome in the MPS negotiating process as a skunk at a garden party. The CSA is seeking to remind union leaders and school officials just who is paying for the garden party in the first place.