Minn. GOP takes aim at teachers' bargaining powerby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As state lawmakers struggle to right Minnesota's finances this year, they're increasingly heading back to school -- specifically, to the people that work there.
Perhaps taking a cue from the political showdown between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his state's unions, Minnesota legislators are focusing on the state's 70,000 public school teachers.
A series of measures introduced in recent weeks aims to reset the state's longstanding relationship with its public school teachers, and curb teachers' labor and political power.
The bills, largely from Republicans, would bar teachers from striking, decertify their unions, eliminate permanent tenure and even end traditional summer vacation.
State Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, introduced bills to eliminate the automatic union dues payments for teachers and allow non-union teacher contracts.
"The structure we've built up over the years in law, has I think made the negotiation field uneven," said Hann, a member of the Senate Education Committee. "I served on a school board; I was on the negotiating committee. I've seen how that works. The threat of a strike and the ability in law to do some of the things that they're currently able to do are basically an unfair advantage."
In the House, the Education Reform Committee has approved a handful of other measures that would ban teachers from striking, eliminate a January contract deadline and restrict labor negotiations to summer months. The Republican-controlled committee passed the measure along party lines.
The state's teachers' union told lawmakers that the present system works fine.
"What is the problem that we're trying to fix?" asked Jan Alswager, a lobbyist for Education Minnesota. "Do you know that over 17 years, when we've had the January deadline in place, that over 99 percent of the contracts were settled without a strike?"
Alswager noted that Minnesota ranked eighth in the nation for teacher pay in the 1990s, but fell to 20th in 2009.
"What kind of leverage is that when your salaries are falling from 8th to 20th [place]?" Alswager asked.
But state Rep. Tim Kelly, sponsor of the no-strike bill and the provision that would eliminate the Jan. 15 deadline, said the measures aren't about money.
"To me it was about simply the process of how we go about negotiating," said Kelly, R-Red Wing. "The intent is to take away from the distraction and the disruption during the school year, which I have seen, personally -- and get that to a time period and an end result quicker, and hopefully with better results."
Kelly cited a 2002 teachers' strike in Red Wing as an example of how divisive teacher walkouts can be.
It isn't clear where Kelly's bill and other efforts will end up. The state teachers' union opposed another Republican initiative this year to allow alternative licensure for classroom teachers. But Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill this week.
Education Minnesota has generally supported Democrats, with both campaign money and volunteers. Despite breaking with the union over the licensing issue, Dayton said at a recent rally that he supports unions and collective bargaining.
Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said he thinks the Republicans are trying to drive a wedge between private and public workers.
"What you see here [are], again, distractions from what we need to be focusing on, which is equitable funding, closing the achievement gap, helping our students get the resources they need," Dooher said.
But Republicans say they're not playing labor politics. First-term Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, introduced a tenure reform bill on Monday and said he expects it to have an impact in the classroom.
"If we're talking about tenure in the context of making teacher effectiveness or student achievement a piece of that decision-making process, then it is relevant and it is something that should be discussed," Banden said.
Only a handful of bills are moving so far. They're headed for the House Ways and Means and Education Finance committees and the Senate education committee.
- All Things Considered, 03/08/2011, 5:20 p.m.