May 22, 2017
In the middle of a stormy legislative session, which is careening to a close at midnight tonight, Minnesota’s Governor, Mark Dayton, has thrown two clear lifelines to public education supporters across the state.
First, on May 18, Dayton took a bold swipe at a shifty, right-wing aligned overhaul of the state’s teacher licensure laws, called HF 140. Citing concern over the proposal’s lack of dedicated funding support, as well as doubts over the tiered approach to licensure offered in the bill, Dayton vetoed HF 140 and sent those supporting it back to the drawing board. “The move came as a shock to Republicans,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, “who argued the bill was a bipartisan improvement to the often-criticized current system.”
The Republicans–at least, the publicly identified ones–weren’t the only ones shocked over Dayton’s rejection of the teacher licensure bill. A group of Minneapolis-based education reform interests, many of whom share an address on University Avenue, also expressed dismay with Dayton’s decision.
Calling themselves a “coaltion,“ groups such as Minnesota Comeback, Ed Allies, Teach for America, Students for Education Reform and Hiawatha Academies (a local charter school chain) sent a letter to Dayton on May 17, urging him to support HF 140. SIgning this bill into law, they promised, would help “countless teachers find a pathway into Minnesota classroom.” (They can’t do so now because of Minnesota’s cumbersome licensure laws, the argument goes.)
What’s more, the letter asserts, HF 140 would allow “school leaders to recruit and retain the best educators for our students.” How so? By having a tiered licensure system, offering several levels of qualifications to work in a school as a teacher. What caught Dayton’s eye was the proposed “Tier 3,” where a candidate could have, in essence, an unlimited, provisional teaching license. (Who would hire these teachers? Blake? Breck? Majority white public schools?)
This provision would have provided a fast track to a disposable, non-union teaching force–perfect for staffing the kind of “high performing, innovative” charter schools favored by education reformers. And, it ties HF 140 right back to its beginnings as a model ALEC bill. In 2006, ALEC–a “pay to play operation” that writes legislation for state and federal elected officials on behalf of corporations and conservative, pro-privatization causes such as Right to Work and Stand Your Ground laws–passed its own teacher licensure law, called the “Alternative Certification Act.”
What does ALEC want? A less skilled, less empowered, non-unionized workforce, preferably in charter schools rather than unionized public schools (charter schools can operate with less public oversight, and a more malleable teaching force may be more willing to experiment with personalized learning and other investor-friendly ventures.) ALEC has been heavily funded by the billion dollar Walton Family Foundation, set up by the folks behind Wal-Mart.
Guess who else is heavily funded by the Walton Foundation? Nearly everybody on the coalition letter sent to Governor Mark Dayton. For example:
- Minnesota Comeback (the group determined to bring “30,000 rigorous, relevant seats” to Minneapolis)
- Great MN Schools (the fund behind Minnesota Comeback)
- Ed Allies (the lobbying arm affiliated with Minnesota Comeback)
- Educators 4 Excellence (an offshoot of Teach for America, designed to supplant teachers unions and promote neoliberal education policies around testing and teacher evaluations)
- Students for Education Reform (spurred by hedge funds)
- Teach for America ((which seeks to stay alive by serving as an alternative licensure operation, staffing primarily charter schools)
- Hiawatha Academies (run by Eli Kramer, whose brother Matt, a former TFA executive, also signed this letter through his new group, the Wildflower Foundation)
- Prodeo Academy (local charter school prized by reformers)
- KIPP MN (funded in part by the Minneapolis Foundation, which has received money from the Walton Family Foundation, as have many charter schools in MN)
These groups often sell themselves as being all about equity and improved opportunity for marginalized communities. It’s curious to note, then, that both the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership–two pro-business, anti-tax lobbying giants–are also listed as part of this education reform coalition.
Flashback! In 2012, the Minnesota Business Partnership stood solidly behind another ALEC-written law, the Voter ID bill that sought to limit voting rights in Minnesota. This bill was described as an “intentional effort to reduce the voting rolls in order to help corporate conservatives further expand their wealth and power.”
This leads to another sketchy education policy provision recently axed by Governor Dayton. In the wee hours of budget negotiations last night, Republican state senator Roger Chamberlain, listed here as a member of ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Taskforce,” acknowledged that the ALEC-sprung measure–neovouchers, or “tax credit scholarships”–had been taken out of the omnibus tax bill.
First, St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger made this announcement:
Sen. Chamberlain tells me the opportunity scholarships, which Dayton called vouchers, are no longer in the tax bill. #mnleg
— R. Stassen-Berger (@RachelSB) May 21, 2017
Chamberlain responded with a terse Twitter statement of his own, declaring that “kids lose again.” Kids lose the opportunity, I guess, to be pawns in a game funded by wealthy ideologues like the Waltons, Betsy DeVos and ALEC’s corporate supporters–all of whom have stood emphatically behind the “disruptive” effects of vouchers (using public money for private schools that do not have to accept “all kids.”)
Dayton has skillfully blocked these two attempts to weaken Minnesota’s stance as a pro-public school state. It couldn’t have been easy, since there are real issues wrapped up in the attempts to reshape teacher licensure laws, and elite forces are skilled at creating or using a crisis (teacher shortage!) to push through their preferred solutions.
Now, before midnight strikes tonight, Dayton faces a very heavy lift: getting ALEC-minded legislators and lobbyists to agree to fund Minnesota’s public schools. Without an investment from the state, public education in Minnesota will remain under further attack from right-wing ideologues and their well-funded agendas.
- Two recent sources that offer insight into the school choice priorities of the uber-wealthy: NPR’s recent series on the “Promise and Peril of School Vouchers” and Jennifer Berkshire’s piece for the Jacobin magazine, “The Privatization Prophets.”
- ProPublica has a handy “step-by-step guide to understanding ALEC’s influence” on state laws, while PR Watch offers more info on why ALEC is pushing “alternative licensure” laws.
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