Another teachers contract, another vote for the status quo

  • Article by: LYNNELL MICKELSEN and BILL ENGLISH
  • Updated: April 17, 2012 - 12:00 AM
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Ask for almost nothing. Settle for even less.

That's the path our Minneapolis school board members chose during their six months of timid negotiations with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

Research shows that the classroom teacher is the single greatest school-based factor in a kid's academic success. Minneapolis has the biggest achievement gap in the state and one of the biggest in the country.

But tonight, the board is expected to approve a $250 million annual contract that not only contains almost no reform but actually sets the district back in its effort to turn around schools, by creating even more bureaucracy, task forces and unaccountable committees.

It's a triumph for defenders of the status quo and a defeat for the 33,000 students in the Minneapolis public schools, the majority of whom are children of color, living in poverty and failing badly.

Here's the frustrating thing: It doesn't have to be like this.

School districts in Cleveland; New Haven, Conn.; Washington, D.C., and New York have negotiated far more progressive contracts with their teachers unions. Schools across the country (and some public charter schools right here in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities) are making great gains with the same demographics of kids who are failing en masse in MPS classrooms.

There's more than a decade's worth of research and practice showing how to close the achievement gap. We could do the same things in the Minneapolis public schools.

Last November, a coalition of community groups, parents and citizens asked the school board and teachers union to negotiate a contract that would give the site team at every city school the freedom to:

1. Hire the best teachers from the widest possible talent pool (instead of being forced to choose from a closed pool of tenured and/or "excessed" district employees).

2. Make effectiveness, not seniority, the chief criterion for all teacher placement and layoff decisions, and more quickly remove our poorest performers.

3. Extend instruction time by 35 days at our lowest-performing schools, where a majority of kids are far below grade level and are falling further behind.

These three freedoms -- along with hiring a great principal -- are present in most successful schools that are closing the achievement gap. None of these three things are possible under our current contract rules.

Yet school board members refused to even ask for these changes. Why?

Well, possibly because 18 months ago, shortly after being elected, four newly elected members of the school board -- Jenny Arneson, Rebecca Gagnon, Richard Mammen and Alberto Monserrate -- signed letters on Minneapolis Federation of Teachers stationery, promising to cooperate and collaborate with the union in all future negotiations.

We have nothing against cooperation, but this borders on collusion. Unfortunately, it looks as if these board members delivered on their signed pledge. This new contract makes a mockery of the board's responsibility to represent the public interest in managing our schools.

After negotiating this dud, some board members understandably began trying to downplay its importance. "The teacher's contract is only one piece of a large, complex puzzle," board chair Alberto Monserrate recently opined.

Right, and the brain is only one part of a large, complex body. But brain death still stinks. The inability of our schools to hire and retain the best teachers or significantly extend the school year for struggling schools is contributing to the academic failure of thousands of Minneapolis students.

Look, we don't take on contract reform because we think it's the only topic that matters. We take it on becaus e it's the one key topic that most of our elected officials won't touch -- even though the teachers contract makes up nearly 50 percent of the district's half-billion annual budget and directly controls who is teaching our kids in the classroom.

Elected school board members come up with the negotiation goals, direct the strategy and ultimately sign the contract on behalf of taxpayers who pay the bills. This contract is the school board's baby and arguably the most important thing it does every two years.

Tonight board members are on the verge of approving yet another contract that ignores the fact that good teachers matter and that serves the needs of the most-senior employees at the expense of students, families, younger teachers, taxpayers and the common good.

What can parents and citizens do at this point? For starters, people can show up at the school board meeting at 6 p.m. -- make this board look the public in the eyes when it votes for this thing. Or e-mail or call board members and tell them to do better by our kids.

Ultimately, we need a school board with the cajones to put the needs of students first. Four new school board members will be on the ballot this November. It's a small race at the bottom of the ballot, but voters need to scroll down and vote for change.

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Lynnell Mickelsen is the cofounder of Put Kids First Minneapolis; her children attended the Minneapolis public schools. Bill English is cochair of the Coalition of Black Churches.

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