Minnesota’s powerful teachers union gave Teach for America a less-than-warm welcome four years ago, saying the program’s new college-grad-to-teacher program was an experiment not worth the risk.

But now, Education Minnesota has enough political clout with a DFL-led state government to push back in a real way, successfully urging Gov. Mark Dayton to veto money to help the group expand and a state teaching board to deny a crucial licensing waiver.

The back-to-back setbacks appear to be the first major rebuke nationwide for the vaunted education reform group that’s placed 10,000 teachers in troubled schools around the country, including 72 in the Twin Cities.

“I believe that we are an outlier in our opposition to TFA,” state Sen. Terry Bonoff, DFL-Plymouth, who worked to bring TFA to the state.

But it could be a troubling signal for the education reform movement in a state that took the lead in pioneering charter schools.

Teach for America places new college grads in classrooms after an intensive five-week training program. Many teachers and their unions don’t like the back-door approach to supplying teachers with far less preparation than college-trained teachers.

But the organization has won strong support from the likes of the Minneapolis Foundation and other backers of more aggressive efforts to raise education outcomes for students, particularly minorities. The foundation said it continues to support TFA.

“Their teachers embrace working in underserved schools with high concentrations of low-income students of color and the demand keeps increasing,” said Amy Hertel, a director for the foundation.

A small corps

Teach for America’s national co-CEO, Matt Kramer, said he didn’t anticipate the twin setbacks.

“[Education Minnesota President] Tom Dooher thought blocking our work should be an important priority,” he said.

Dooher has argued against the program, saying that its teachers don’t meet Minnesota teaching standards, yet they are paid the same as fully credentialed teachers and don’t produce the same results.

The uproar in Minnesota happened despite low numbers of TFA teachers in the state. It has only 72 recent college graduates placed in Twin Cities classrooms in a state with well over 50,000 teachers. Even in Minneapolis, the only noncharter district using TFA, only 20 TFA corps members taught this year. Another five former corps members teach for the district. That’s less than 1 percent of the district’s 3,200-plus teachers. Most teach in harder-to-fill posts where foreign languages are required.

In Minneapolis, the pushback has been led by the left end of the union, often high school teachers who see TFA as part of a corporate agenda to undermine or take over public education.

“I want my children taught by inspired career professionals, not a temp,” said Southwest High School teacher Valerie Rittler.

Their fears were fanned by the election of TFA alum Josh Reimnitz to the Minneapolis school board last year in an election to which reformers contributed record amounts, and by the hiring of other TFA alums to key posts in Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s administration.

Although TFA is 20 years old and in 36 states where it seeks out schools in pockets of poverty, it didn’t come to Minnesota until 2009. Johnson invited it to supply teachers after a favorable experience in Memphis schools, where she was deputy superintendent, and where TFA has 300 corps members. The group expanded here after rounding up funders, led by Medtronic Foundation.

Research is mixed

TFA generally hires graduates from more competitive colleges, most without the pedagogy training that other teacher candidates spend years on. They commit to two years of teaching in high-poverty urban or rural districts. They enter classrooms each fall after five weeks of training for up to 70 hours a week. That combines summer school student teaching with a condensed classroom version of collegiate teacher programs. Corps members pursue licensing through Hamline University in St. Paul while teaching, and get mentor support. The University of Minnesota said this week it’s in talks with TFA about training its corps members.

How well does TFA’s approach work? Research nationally is mixed. Several older peer-reviewed academic studies suggest that students taught by TFA members fare no worse than other teachers who don’t come from college teaching programs, but not as well as teachers who do. That difference fades as TFA members gain experience, but most leave after their two-year commitment. But more recent looks at statewide data in three Southern states find that TFA-taught students did better than education school-trained rookies.

What’s next

Bonoff, who worked to bring TFA to Minnesota, said Education Minnesota would do better to mentor TFA than fight it. Dayton’s veto blocked $1.5 million that would have allowed TFA to add 25 graduates to its Minnesota corps, as Education Minnesota lobbied him to do.

The Board of Teaching’s decision denying a fifth year of a blanket licensing exemption for TFA’s entering crop of corps members was a turnabout. Education Minnesota said all six of the board’s teacher members are union members, but that’s almost inevitable given that 97 percent of all district teachers pay it full dues.

After the 8-2 board vote last week, TFA’s 43 new corps members will need to apply individually, through their schools.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib