Kathy Saltzman

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Former state senator heads back to Capitol to push school reform

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 23, 2012 - 7:22 PM

With one term in office and an electoral defeat behind her, former state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, stepped away from politics in 2011 to lead a group that places AmeriCorps tutors in state classrooms.

The position built on her legislative work aimed at ensuring kids are proficient readers by the end of third grade, and has helped schools locally, with 47 tutors now working in the South Washington County, Stillwater and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale districts.

But Saltzman said she missed the excitement and broad impact that comes with the give and take of public policy.

So now she is back in the fray, and in a big way, as state director for StudentsFirst, a school reform group with a national presence -- and a powerful adversary in the form of Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union that denied Saltzman its endorsement in 2010.

Adding to the challenge facing her in 2013 is the takeover of the state House and Senate by DFLers who, generally speaking, have resisted reform ideas of the sort promoted by StudentsFirst during the 2012 legislative session.

Saltzman, undeterred, said that she believed this year's election showed voters want policymakers to set aside special interests.

"The question is: Where can we find common ground?" she said last week. "What kind of policies put the most effective teachers in front of students, empower parents so they are involved in their children's education and ensure fiscal accountability for our education investments?"

StudentsFirst, founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, describes itself as a bipartisan grassroots movement promoting common sense reforms. In Minnesota, one of 17 states in which it now is active, the group this year backed a key Republican priority: the end of the "last-in, first-out" seniority-based system of teacher layoffs that critics contend cuts loose too many good, young teachers.

The legislation, opposed by Education Minnesota, was vetoed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Last week, Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, cited StudentsFirst as an example of an "astro turf type group" -- not grassroots, in other words -- that relies on national funding and local people such as Saltzman to push a radical agenda.

Saltzman brings to the group a resumé that includes honors as a legislator of the year by the Minnesota School Boards Association and a charter school champion by the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.

During her four years in the Senate, she sponsored legislation to boost literacy, tighten controls on charter schools and ease the way to alternative paths to teacher licensure -- the latter of which was opposed by Education Minnesota. Dooher described it last week as a pithy bumper sticker idea that lacked research to prove it worked.

Next year, Saltzman said she planned to monitor the state's progress in implementing alternative certification and teacher and principal evaluation systems.

To those who question StudentsFirst's grassroots nature, Saltzman points to its 30,000 followers in Minnesota -- people who she says contacted or expressed interest in the group "in some way."

It is her hope, she said, that people stop with the labeling, "let us introduce ourselves" and discuss ways to close the state's achievement gap.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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