Minneapolis Teachers Union Pushes for Smaller Classes, Less Testing–and $15 Minimum Wage

November 22, 2017

Last night, the best seat in town for education advocates was a folding chair inside the squat, workaday headquarters of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. It’s negotiation season for the union, and the stakes are high.

On one side of the table sat a handful of Minneapolis Public School administrators, including Chief Human Resources Officer Maggie Sullivan and Michael Thomas, the district’s second in command behind Superintendent Ed Graff. Sullivan, Thomas and the other MPS admin remained silent during the negotiations. Instead, labor and employment lawyer Kevin Rupp did the talking.

The district reps might have felt outnumbered. In a sharp departure from past union-district negotiations, MFT members packed the florescent-lit room with a sea of union blue t-shirts, alongside a smattering of community observers. Pro-labor posters, constructed at a recent “Art Build for Public Education” event, lined the yellow walls of the negotiations room, showing that MFT, under new leader Michelle Wiese, is working to embrace social justice unionism

Economic hard times pose a sustained threat to hopes for improvement in the social welfare. Savage inequalities in the public education available to children of different racial and class backgrounds reflect growing social and economic polarization and squander the potential of our youth. Gaps between schools and the communities they serve are widening. The price of continued decay in public education and social well-being will be paid in reduced prospects for a democratic future.

–Rethinking Schools: “Social Justice Unionism,” Fall 1994

Negotiations–always a tense display of political theater–have become strained, thanks to the school district’s recent request for mediation. Moving to mediation means the public will be shut out of future sessions, although the district has agreed to meet publicly through 2017 (negotiations will be held on December 5 and 19 at MFT headquarters in northeast Minneapolis).

Requests for mediation are not new. In 2013, it was MFT that asked to close negotiations to the public, under former longtime president Lynn Nordgren’s leadership. This sparked a protest by education reform outfits such as Students for Education Reform and their allies from the now-dormant Put Kids First group.

It may have been easier back then to declare the union an old school, obstructionist mess, although that narrative has always been driven in large part by the anti-labor forces attempting to decimate workers’ rights across the United States. CNN Money, of all places, recently took a look at what Wisconsin teachers are facing in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s Koch and ALEC-fed actions.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not just about teacher pay and benefits; the destruction of unions in Wisconsin is pushing teachers and professors out of the state, and diminishing prospects for students. This example is worth keeping in mind amid ongoing calls to bring more people of color into teaching. What kind of jobs will they be offered?

At MFT last night, the union and district gnashed teeth over several union proposals. One striking call, led by Andersen United Community School teacher, Kristen Melby, was for clean schools. Fifteen years ago, Melby said, the Minneapolis schools had five hundred building engineers; today, there are less than two hundred and fifty. There are fewer students now, too, but protests in recent years have focused on the lack of cleanliness and care at MPS sites like Andersen.

Further MFT proposals dealt with special education caseloads and paid time off for teachers who must fill out onerous piles of paperwork associated with providing special education services. The district took a break midway through the negotiations, to confer, caucus and prepare their rebuttals. The district then responded to previous union proposals, most notably around class size and standardized testing.

Speaking for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Rupp said the district would refuse to negotiate around either of these issues. The union had previously proposed that the district mandate only the minimum amount of testing required by the state, arguing that any additional standardized testing pushed on the schools is costly–in terms of technology, labor, and lost hours of teaching and learning. (Schools often have to close their computer labs for weeks or months at a time, for example, to accommodate testing demands, and they have to pay someone to act as testing coordinator.)

In explaining MPS’s refusal to discuss testing, Rupp cited Minnesota’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act which he said puts questions of “educational policy within the School District’s sole authority.” Rupp also said that this law “protects democratic representational government,” by allowing elected school boards to make policy decisions. 

District administrators ponder MFT proposals

This struck me as a curious argument, since the school board is often criticized for being too involved in district operations. Some board members, past and current, have also repeatedly maintained that their only role is to hold the Superintendent–the board’s one employee–responsible for his or her own policy and hiring decisions. The board is not supposed to make policy, right?

Allowing teachers a greater say in what happens in the classroom, including how students are assessed, is an oft-repeated goal of both social justice unionism and education reform groups, who often insist that top-down management of school districts is a big problem. Also, as union leaders pointed out last night, MPS has been toeing the testing line since No Child Left Behind, yet little, if anything, has changed in terms of student outcomes (according to standardized test scores).

Is it time to “rethink assessment”? If so, who should lead this work? Teachers or administrators? School board members? 

The district also refused to discuss class size, claiming not only that the district is solely in charge of this, but that negotiating smaller class sizes would cost MPS upwards of $37 million per year. Impossible, Rudd claimed, in light of the $33 million budget shortfall MPS is wrestling with.

The dire financial straits facing MPS are real, and Graff and the school board have publicly addressed them. According to the November 14 school board meeting, raising class sizes by one student per classroom across the district, while also bringing the smaller classes at high priority schools up to district averages, is on the table. This is heartbreaking, especially in a wealthy state like Minnesota.

The district may not be willing or able to move on topics like class size and testing right now, although there are legitimate questions about who will most likely bear the brunt of the upcoming budget squeeze (a squeeze brought about, in part, by previous district admin and their expensive reform plans). Still, the sight of one hundred or more teachers, social workers, school librarians and support staff joining together to push for smaller class sizes, less standardized testing and more time to devote to their students is a hopeful one.

To be fair, the November school board meeting also offered many intriguing clues about MPS leadership. It is to be expected that the district and union would be at loggerheads during negotiations, but, in watching video coverage of the November meeting, I see signs of progress from within MPS.

FIrst, uncomfortable and damaging budget realities are being openly discussed in new ways. The Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, must pay the special education costs for students who attend charter or private schools outside of the district. They must pay these costs but retain zero control over the quality or level of service the students receive, thanks to state law.

Also, the Minneapolis Public Schools faces millions in cross-subsidy costs for the special education and English Language services it must provide (and should provide, of course). This means that, although the state requires the district to provide such services, it does not provide enough funding to cover the cost. Therefore, MPS has to take money–to the tune of $56 million for special education alone, in 2016-2017–from each student’s per pupil funds to pay for the services they are required by law to provide.

While the general fund is being asked to pick up a greater and greater share of non-general-fund expenditures, the general fund itself has lost considerable ground to inflation. If the base education funding formula had simply kept pace with inflation since 2003, it would be over $600 per pupil higher today.

2016 Star Tribune editorial by Rebecca Gagnon, John Vento and Bruce Richardson of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts

Charter and private schools, as I said, can bill their special education costs back to the district. Charter schools only pay ten percent of the cost themselves. This is a problem the legislature needs to address–quickly, especially as the Minneapolis schools face increasing competition from charter schools that promise better outcomes for students but perhaps do not pay their share of costs for these “better outcomes.” 

The union-district negotiations will move behind closed doors in January 2018. That’s a shame, because the conversations embedded within them are worth paying attention to. The union is pushing for many things, including a living wage for all district employees, since MPS remains exempt from the move to a citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour. These efforts will hopefully go a long way towards shifting the narrative around public education from failure to solutions.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

–Rachel Cohen, “Teacher Unions are Bargaining for the Common Good.” American Prospect, June 2016

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