DFL is stuck in the mud of teacher seniority

/ 6 March 2012 / jennifer

Lynnell Mickelsen, Commentary, Star Tribune, March 6, 2012 –

So there I was, in late February, a lifelong, die-hard progressive DFL mom from Minneapolis, sitting in the governor’s office with Rep. Branden Petersen, a die-hard conservative Republican dad from Coon Rapids.

We were there to see if Gov. Mark Dayton would consider signing Petersen’s bill to get rid of “last in, first out” (LIFO), a law that forces school districts to make teacher layoffs based solely on seniority, instead of effectiveness.

Branden and I are unlikely political allies who don’t agree on much except that every kid deserves the best possible teacher and that LIFO is really stupid. According to a recent poll, 91 percent of Minnesotans agree.

So you’d think his LIFO bill would be a bipartisan no-brainer. But this is the State Capitol, so, alas, no.

Our small meeting started off with the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Michelle Kelm Helgen, saying that LIFO is not a problem because — listen up, people, great news — ineffective teachers in Minnesota are routinely removed from the classroom within two or three months.

So by the time layoffs are announced in April, she went on, there aren’t many ineffective teachers left. They’ve already been removed. Which is why our seniority rules work just fine.

As God as my witness, she actually said this. I started to reply that this rosy scenario had not been my experience in Minneapolis.

But the governor cut me off, saying that Minneapolis schools were not relevant to this discussion because the district was an abomination, a sea of dysfunction; its school board couldn’t even negotiate a decent contract; it was not like the rest of the state. It was an abomination, he repeated.

Which I thought was a bit too biblical. Yes, we have problems, but I didn’t think we were at Book of Revelation levels.

As I type this, I’m thinking the governor may have meant “aberration,” and as a fellow boomer who experiences frequent Noun Failure (my husband and I are reduced to pointing at objects and saying “that thingy thing there”) he has my total support.

Anyhow, the rest of the meeting followed the usual talking points of my beloved DFL tribe. We were told there’s no proven way to know which teachers are effective; that student academic growth data isn’t reliable; that the state would need many years to design and test evaluations before it could even consider using them in layoffs; that teachers were feeling demoralized and besieged, ditto for unions, etc., etc.

“Besides, what’s the hurry?” asked the governor. “If it’s such a good idea, why not introduce it next session?”

Have I mentioned yet that GOP legislators mostly drive me nuts? That I hate their creepy obsessions with gays, guns, voter ID, various lady parts, right-to-work nonsense and tax breaks for overpaid CEOs? That I fervently hope the DFL retakes the state Legislature this November?

But that brings me to what the hurry is: If the DFL regains control of the Legislature, we can kiss most education reforms goodbye. Because, on this topic, my party acts like a wholly owned subsidiary of Education Minnesota, which, frankly, doesn’t do much for our credibility with ordinary voters.

That’s why, as a Democrat, I really hope that Dayton signs the bill. He came into office beholden to no one.

Unlike the legislators, he’s not on the ballot this November. So he’s in the unique position to lead and do the right thing for the 800,000 public school kids in this state. Which may actually help the DFL in November.

If he vetoes it, voters will hear, once again, that if the DFL has to choose between a kid’s right to a great teacher and an ineffective teacher’s right to a job, we’ll side with the ineffective teacher. This does not strike me as a winning party platform.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that teacher seniority rights are to the DFL what gay marriage is to the GOP. Republicans keep banging their Bibles and thundering that marriage is between a man and a woman.

But they are losing this culture war. The public — especially people under 30 — increasingly accepts gay marriage, and we’re not going backward on this issue.

The same thing goes with teacher seniority rights. The DFL can keep insisting that rigid seniority works great, that teachers — unlike any other profession — can’t be fairly evaluated or hired or laid off based on their performance.

But the public doesn’t buy it. Many young teachers are also asking for change.

As Democrats, the more we defend these rules, the dumber we look.


Lynnell Mickelsen is in her 18th year as a Minneapolis public school parent and is the cofounder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a volunteer progressive group pushing for changes in the teachers’ contract.