Union, corporate leaders agree on new education idea / Joe Nathan’s Column

Jim Bartholomew and Louise Sundin often disagree on education issues.

Bartholomew lobbies for the Minnesota Business Partnership, representing the state’s largest corporations. Sundin is former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and former American Federation of Teachers vice president.Jim Bartholomew and Louise Sundin often disagree on education issues.

But on April 10, both supported a bill in the Minnesota House K-12 Education Finance Committee. It has bipartisan support, including chief authors Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, and Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville.

The bill would provide startup funds to help district public school teachers create “teacher-led schools.”

Bartholomew testified: “The Minnesota Business Partnership has been a longtime advocate for giving teachers greater autonomy to design the program and services they believe will best help their students succeed. Not only is there a great deal of research supporting the role increased autonomy plays in student and school success, but we also see it in the high-performing schools we’ve recognized over the past nine years.”

Sundin told legislators the opportunity for “teacher-powered schools” is one way to attract and retain skilled educators: “Finally, they can create and shine and have autonomy and be respected as well as taking full responsibility; respect and responsibility equals results.”

Sundin continued: “Professionally powered schools give teachers the power to be true professionals – to make decisions about not just what to teach and how to teach but who will be their colleagues, how will they promote their school, how will they evaluate each other, how will they pay for new technology. The decisions are endless, but the challenge is invigorating, inspiring and the teams of educators are true colleagues and collaborators in creating, delivering and deciding.”

A poll by Education Evolving, a Minnesota-based advocacy group, found 85 percent of the public and 78 percent of educators think this is a good idea, and 54 percent of educators say they are “very interested in working in such a school.” (Read Education Evolving’s report at http://bit.ly/1zeLYwG.)

Dawn Clawson was a highly regarded St. Paul district science teacher and an example of a teacher the district system lost. She recently wrote: “It was not easy to introduce changes that were substantial enough to make any real difference.

“When a colleague told me of his dreams of a program that would take the students out of the building to do some of their learning in the natural world, I eagerly embraced the vision and worked to make it a reality. … We were attempting to bridge the gap between what was being taught and what the students retained, utilized and truly learned. … We hoped that the program could be established within the district, but after two years of working with the administrators, we realized that if our vision had any chance of success, we would have to take it outside of the district and establish our program as a public charter school. Only by doing that could we ensure schoolwide implementation of our approach, be in our own specially designed space, and be able to depend on our specially trained staff remaining with us and not getting reallocated elsewhere within the district. So that is what we did.

“River’s Edge Academy (http://bit.ly/1FR65G0) has now been in operation for five years. … Changing the approach to teaching and learning has made a great difference in the lives of many students and their families,” Clawson wrote.

The Minnesota Senate K-12 Education Finance Committee recently recommended providing $1 million for this teacher-led schools concept. The House suggested modifying the current law to include this idea but has not recommended any startup funds. So the ultimate decision will come from another committee that will resolve differences.

Opportunities to create new, innovative public schools should be available to district, as well as charter, educators.

Both Democrats, like Richfield’s Rep. Linda Slocum, and Republicans like Rep. Peggy Bennett, of Albert Lea, praised the idea. Bennett, a public school teacher, described the bill as “perhaps the most exciting proposal I’ve heard all year.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.