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Jennifer Kohnke, NewsArt

Five steps toward better Minneapolis schools

  • Article by: LYNNELL MICKELSEN
  • November 28, 2011 - 9:01 PM

Call us gluttons for punishment. For two months, a small group of parents and citizens have been quietly watching the Minneapolis teachers contract negotiations.

By law, these meetings are open to the public, but the dates and times aren't well-publicized.

Plus, we're talking three-hour meetings filled with almost weaponized levels of blather. So trust us, there's never a crowd.

We show up because, as longtime Minneapolis public school parents and activists, we know what's at stake.

The contract between the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) represents nearly $240 million a year in wages and benefits, and it directly controls who's teaching our kids in the classroom.

For years, these negotiations have been treated as exclusive discussions between private parties. The result has been a heavily padded 229-page contract that puts adults' employment needs over students' academic needs -- every time.

Research shows that the classroom teacher plays the biggest school-based role in a student's academic success.

Yet our schools are hamstrung by contract rules that blindly reward teacher seniority over quality, that limit our hiring pool, that force school leaders to accept hundreds of ineffective teachers they don't want and that make it very hard to remove the most dismal performers.

The contract also limits the district's ability to extend the school day for underperforming schools or to hire more ethnically diverse teachers -- and this in a district where 85 percent of the teachers are white and almost 70 percent of the students are kids of color.

In short, it's crazy. We've given our schools a huge task. Then we've forced them to work under rules that no successful business or nonprofit could survive. And we keep doing it even as huge numbers of Minneapolis students are failing.

So when contract negotiations began in early October, a small group of us decided to show up to serve silent witness that it was time for the district and MFT to negotiate a contract that actually put the academic needs of kids first.

Watching the negotiations has been like watching a deeply dysfunctional couple in marriage counseling for the 104th time. The MFT shows no interest in changing contract rules that serve its most senior members well.

It also says poverty is the main cause for mass academic failure in Minneapolis, so the answer is more social services, not contract reforms. (We'd argue that we need both, but we're just in the peanut gallery.)

Meanwhile, district negotiators make mild noises about reform.

But they don't seem to want to push hard, perhaps because any contract must be approved by our elected school board, which includes four new members who last year signed letters, on MFT stationery, promising to be more cooperative in future negotiations.

After a month of watching the inertia, we decided to issue our own proposals. We've called it "The Contract for Student Achievement" and are asking the MFT and school board members to make these five changes:

1. Shift to performance-based staffing. Make effectiveness, not seniority, the chief criteria for teachers' hiring, placement and layoff decisions.

2. Allow every Minneapolis school to hire its licensed teachers from the widest possible talent pool. Quit forcing our schools to hire from the limited pool of tenured, excessed district teachers.

3. End forced placement of teachers in schools that do not choose to hire them.

4. Give the district the right to give underperforming schools extra instruction time -- as long as teachers are compensated for it.

5. Simplify and shorten the procedure for dismissing chronically ineffective teachers to less than 12 months.

Nearly 100 community leaders, parents and citizens have signed on as public supporters.

So have the Minneapolis Urban League, Twin Cities African-American Leadership Forum, Northside Achievement Zone, MinnCAN and other groups. We're a grass-roots coalition from all over the city, and our numbers are growing.

So far, we've received no official response to our proposals. But predictably, we've been accused of being part of a teacher-bashing, union-busting, right-wing conspiracy.

Please. Most of us are progressives -- staunch supporters of public schools, teachers and collective bargaining. I'm a lifelong, active DFLer who got my first union card at age 17.

But if friends don't let friends drive drunk, friends of unions shouldn't let one drive off the cliffs of public opinion.

No other union reaches so deeply into people's lives for so long and affects what matters to them most -- their kids' futures.

So when the public sees a union defending contract rules that damage their kids' education, this does more insidious, long-term damage to the labor movement than anything the right-wing could ever come up with.

Change won't happen without intense public pressure. Negotiations are scheduled to be finished on Dec. 16.

Teachers need to ask for a contract that truly serves kids and teachers at all levels of experience and enhances their union's public image. Citizens need to ask their school board for a contract that truly serves the common good.

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Lynnell Mickelsen is the cofounder of Put Kids First Minneapolis and one of the authors of the Contract for Student Achievement.

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