Column: New bill offers teachers respect, families options

Joe Nathan
By Joe Nathan
ECM Columnist

Suburban and urban educators agreed at a Minnesota Senate hearing on April 7: A new, historic Minnesota bill offers greater respect for teachers and new opportunities for students and families.

The bill offers “startup” grants to district teachers to create “teacher-led schools.”

Officials at Education Commission of the States, a national, nonpartisan research group that follows legislation, told me this week that they thought Minnesota would be the first to give money to groups of teachers to create new district options.

Lakeville Superintendent Lisa Snyder explained to the Senate K-12 Finance Committee: “Empowering teachers is really the key to excellence in public schools. … We look to countries like Japan, where teachers engage in ‘lesson study’ to continually improve their instructional methods or the leading educational system, (or) Finland, where the best and the brightest teachers have a high level of autonomy and excellent results.” Snyder praised veteran teacher Julene Oxton, who helped create and works in Lakeville’s Impact Academy, an elementary school option.

Oxton testified: “After being a teacher in the educational system for 30 years, I am excited and hopeful in the future for students as we work toward empowering teachers to make more decisions around their work. There is no better group than teachers to transform the educational system to better meet the needs of our students and the future workforce.”

She spoke for many teachers, pointing out: “Teachers have been traditionally managed from the top down. The teacher-powered schools movement gives hope to flip this to empower the teachers to make lasting change.”

In explaining her support for the bill, 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Megan Hall described Open World Learning Community, a St. Paul district school: “For years, two children have applied for every spot in our school. St. Paul Public Schools easily could fill another school like ours, or two or three more. … The teachers at my school work like small business owners, not employees of a large corporation.” She joined others in urging legislators to give district educators startup funds similar to those awarded to people starting chartered public schools.

Presidents of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Lakeville teachers unions; Mark Schmitz, superintendent in Staples-Motley; Education Evolving, a Minnesota research and advocacy group; and the center where I work also support the bill. Curt Johnson of Education Evolving told the committee that a national poll found 78 percent of teachers think teacher-led schools are a good idea, and 85 percent of the general public agrees. (View Education Evolving’s report on teacher-led schools at http://bit.ly/1zeLYwG.)

Chief Senate author Greg Clausen, a former Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district principal, testified that the bill would do exactly what these folks recommend. Senate File 916 provides planning funds for either creation of a new district school or conversion of an existing school to teacher-led status. The bill also provides up to two years of startup funds to help purchase equipment and supplies, along with planning time outside the regular school day.

Clausen’s bill and its companion, House File 1283, have bipartisan support, including Sens. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope; Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes; and Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake. In the House, chief author Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, is joined by Reps. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City; Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield; and Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul.

Peterson told me: “Having served on a school board, I’ve seen the critical importance of teachers. I think this is a very important bill. It’s not just about the money that this would provide. It’s a statement of support and respect.” I agree.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.