The political family feud between some DFL legislators and the state teachers union has been simmering for years and now appears to be boiling over.
The flashpoint has been the Obama administration's recent rejection of Minnesota's bid for $250 million in federal Race to the Top funds, based on what it said was the state's inability to deal with low-performing teachers.
Now the rift between the DFL Party and one of its most stalwart supporters is widening just as DFL candidates face a tough November election.
"I think I just kissed my endorsement goodbye," remarked Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, who was supported by the union, Education Minnesota, in two previous elections but recently knocked heads with it.
Swails, who teaches high school and is a member of Education Minnesota, said she caught flak from the union for supporting special teaching licenses for mid-career professionals willing to become teachers.
She and other DFLers say the union is tone-deaf on resisting higher pension contributions from teachers even though taxpayers face declines in their retirement savings.
"This is something that has been building over several years," said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, describing tensions between the union and some DFLers who deal with education issues. "There have been quiet conversations between legislators about frustration."
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, downplayed the rift, saying friction between some DFLers and the union over policy changes does little to alter the longstanding ties between the party and union.
"We have terrific relationships with the leaders of the House and Senate," Dooher said. "If we didn't, I'd be worried."
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, vice chair of the E-12 education budget division, also acknowledged that disagreements have emerged. Education Minnesota is opposing her bill to provide for licensing professionals, she said, but "I'm not going to give up."
Bonoff noted that the federal government awards points for such a system that helps states qualify for Race to the Top money.
"This is about, 'Are we going to give everything we've got to be a part of this program?'" Bonoff asked.
Education Minnesota's more natural adversary over the years has been the Republican Party, as evidenced recently when Gov. Tim Pawlenty accused the union of fighting changes that would have made it easier for the state to receive Race to the Top federal education money.
The most recent reports of 2009 campaign contributions by the union's Political Action Committee show that 90 percent went to DFL party units. Still, the PAC gave about three times as much in 2007, the previous nonelection year.
An issue that defines tensions between the union and some DFLers is the proposal to create a new licensing system for teachers. People with college degrees in other fields could teach certain skills as long as they passed exams to do so and took 200 hours of training.
"That's really not enough," Dooher said, arguing that the system would lower teaching standards.
Not so, says Swails.
"We're looking at people who are highly skilled and motivated," she said, adding that the union really is concerned about protecting the job security of current members.
Saltzman said the union has also balked at legislation that would have made teachers show they had mastered a method for teaching English. Instead, a compromise required only new teachers to master the method. Dooher said the union was concerned about merely embracing the latest trend in teaching.
Pensions an issue
Legislators are considering a bill that would raise contributions from teachers and school districts and trim benefit increases to shore up a pension funding shortfall. Swails said Education Minnesota has resisted increasing teacher contributions, saying the schools should pay more.
"A school district cannot continue to shoulder this," said Swails, who teaches English at Woodbury High School. "Shared sacrifices are what's called upon right now."
"They're talking about my pension, my benefits," Swails said. "But when I'm 81 years old, I'd like to know I still have a monthly income."
Dooher said the union's position is more nuanced than described by Swails and some other DFLers. He said Education Minnesota is not necessarily opposed to raising pension contribution rates of teachers, but wants assurances that they won't get stuck fixing the pension shortfall if school districts fail to provide additional funding.
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210