Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of a relatively small investment in the innovative Teach for America program tells us a lot about the power of the status quo in Minnesota education.
The $1.5 million appropriation over two years would have allowed TFA to recruit, train and support 50 additional teachers. TFA gives recent college graduates a path to earn alternative certification to teach, and program participants often are placed in struggling low-income schools that some senior teachers avoid.
Many TFA participants are placed in harder-to-fill subject areas such as math, science and bilingual education. The program is considered especially effective in recruiting and training minorities interested in teaching.
TFA is often supported by school administrators and principals but opposed as a threat by unions. True to form, the powerful Education Minnesota teachers union rallied members in opposition to the $1.5 million appropriation, which was backed by education leaders such as Minneapolis schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and reform-minded groups including the African American Leadership Forum that are focused on the state’s embarrassing achievement gap.
Dayton didn’t mention Education Minnesota in his veto letter, but last week’s action marked the second time in the past year that he has sided with the union in opposing sensible measures aimed at improving teaching in the state.
In 2012, Dayton vetoed needed changes to the state’s “last in, first out” teacher tenure law. The legislation would have removed the seniority-only criteria in layoff decisions, replacing it with a system based on teacher skills and performance, along with seniority.
In other words, ineffective teachers would have no longer received the same level of job-security protections based solely on tenure.
In vetoing the TFA funding, Dayton wrote, “No competitive grant program was established, no other applications were solicited, and no objective review was made by a panel of experts.” He also noted that TFA is a financially strong national program with $270 million in 2011 revenue and $350 million in assets.
TFA would have welcomed a competitive grant process, said Crystal Brakke, the group’s Twin Cities executive director. No such process is currently in place, however, and the appropriation received bipartisan legislative support without it.
Focusing on the financial strength of TFA ignores the fact that the organization’s model calls for its state chapters to raise local money to support local programs, Brakke said. In fact, the vetoed appropriation required that every $1 from the state would have been matched with $3 in private funds.
Fifteen states have funded TFA or are expected to do so during current legislative sessions.
It’s notable that the financially strong Mayo Clinic, 3M, Mall of America and Minnesota Vikings all won significant state subsidies this year without the level of competition and analysis Dayton wanted for the tiny TFA expenditure.
To his credit, Dayton signed a 2011 bill that gave the state’s Board of Teaching the authority to approve alternative licensure programs. The legislation won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — a major supporter of TFA and similar programs.
But when given an opportunity to follow through on that law and support TFA’s efforts in Minnesota, Dayton sided with Education Minnesota.
It’s unfortunate — and somewhat perplexing — that the union sees TFA as such a threat. There are 72 TFA teachers in Twin Cities schools now, and without the $1.5 million, 42 will be added in the fall, Brakke said.
Minnesota has 50,000-plus full-time teachers — the great majority of whom come from traditional schools of education. That will not change, nor should it.
TFA is not a cure-all for struggling schools. It’s simply another tool for administrators and principals interested in new approaches to teaching and learning.
Dayton’s veto letter argues that the state’s Department of Education should develop a formal, competitive grant program to weigh funding requests from “programs like TFA.” If Dayton is truly committed to education reform, he should ensure that DOE has such a process in place as soon as possible.
Those who have a stake in successful innovation in Minnesota schools — including the students who are most in need of help — have little time to waste.