Don Samuels, Chanda Baker, Sondra Samuels: As the teachers union digs in, it's students who suffer

  • Updated: March 8, 2010 - 7:05 PM
On a personal level, union leaders such as Education Minnesota President Thomas Dooher no doubt care about our schools, teachers and communities. We all know many wonderful teachers in Education Minnesota's ranks. They are our relatives, neighbors and friends.

Yet on issue after issue, Dooher stands defiantly in the school entrance, horn in hand, blocking any innovation that would lift black children from north Minneapolis out of the endless cycle of poverty and failure. Many leaders within the black community, including us, will not stand politely by and allow such injustice at the hands of Education Minnesota to happen any longer.

Only 34 percent of the Minneapolis district's black students graduate from high school in four years, compared with almost 70 percent of whites, according to the latest state figures. Last year, only 8.6 percent of black students were proficient on state science tests, compared with 61.4 percent of white students.

Despite the crisis in our urban education system, Dooher publicly stated that he would rather lose hundreds of millions of dollars for our public schools than give up union positions on issues like performance pay and alternative teacher certification -- strategies that President Obama supports for closing the achievement gap.

Well, Dooher got his wish last week, when Minnesota failed to become a finalist in the Race to the Top program and secure up to $250 million of the $4.35 billion competition. Make no mistake: Despite the public statement that "we're obviously disappointed," Dooher achieved his goal.

To their credit, almost 90 percent of Minnesota's school districts and charter schools, as well as 28 union locals, including in Minneapolis and St. Paul, supported the president's innovations, but it was not enough to override the state union's opposition.

What is the union leader's next target? Dooher opposes another proven innovation touted by the president -- the alternative teacher certification bill under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature, which would widen the pool of qualified candidates entering the field from different paths and attract more minorities into the teacher ranks.

Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, and we believe alternative teacher certification is one of the missing links as to why Minnesota's urban core schools have not yet realized the success of many of their counterparts in other cities. Students trapped in consistently low-performing schools have been robbed of their right to a high-quality education and effective teachers. If the Legislature passes alternative teacher certification, it would open the pipeline to programs like Teach For America, which recruits top-notch teachers into high-needs classrooms.

Although Dooher has claimed otherwise, a growing body of extensive reputable research from the Urban Institute and others indicates that Teach For America teachers are as effective as veteran and fully certified teachers. On behalf of our struggling students, we need these talented individuals leading our kids to academic success.

We tout our predominantly white suburban schools as some of the best in the nation, which they are. Yet today the African-American, Hispanic and immigrant families living in north Minneapolis and many other neighborhoods in the urban core have few, if any, choices to send their children to quality schools that match our high-performing suburban schools.

Education Minnesota's hollow defense of the status quo is a cynical, morally bankrupt agenda, which focuses more on protecting the adult members of teacher unions than protecting the interests of the state's most vulnerable children. Dooher has become the last holdout for the failed status quo, one that has yielded no significant change to the achievement gap over the last three decades. His commitment to thwarting real reform has blocked every bridge that spans the racial and socioeconomic performance gap.

So the next time we hear more statistics on the tragic inequities of Minnesota schools, we must move from naive frustration to a passionate insistence that Education Minnesota move out of the way of progress.

Don Samuels represents the Fifth Ward on the Minneapolis City Council. Chanda Baker is director of strategic partners for Pillsbury United Communities. Sondra Samuels is president of the PEACE Foundation. The latter two organizations are north Minneapolis community foundations.

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