Education is emerging as a lightning rod issue in this year's race for governor.
Republicans say Minnesota's recent failure to win a competitive federal education grant showed that Democrats are beholden to an obstructionist teacher's union. They're also using the issue against DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the candidate the teachers union supports for governor.
The statewide teachers union Education Minnesota is a big political force at the State Capitol, and DFL lawmakers have been traditional allies. Republicans have pushed back against the union before, but this past session they pushed a lot harder.
Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington delivered a memorable salvo from the House floor during the closing hours of the session.
"Education Minnesota is no longer a legitimate voice in the education policy debate. They are no longer a professional organization," Garofalo said. "They are nothing more than a partisan political action committee. Nothing more, nothing less."
Garofalo and other Republicans blame the teachers union and DFL leaders for preventing the passage of Gov. Pawlenty's package of proposed education changes, which included alternative teacher licensing and a system of temporary tenure. In response, the Republican governor decided not to apply for the second round of the federal Race to the Top grants. The legislative session is over, but the blame game continues on the campaign trail.
Tom Emmer, the GOP-endorsed candidate for governor, said he plans to bring up the issue every chance he gets.
"We're absolutely going to be talking about it. We're going to talk about the fact that the other party, the other people that seek to lead this state, are beholden to a union boss who doesn't have our children's best interest at heart," Emmer said. "It's his own political agenda, his own political future, and that's wrong."
That union boss Emmer talks about is Tom Dooher, who's served as president of Education Minnesota since 2007. Dooher said his only agenda is standing up for students, schools and teachers, and making sure they have the financial resources needed to succeed.
Dooher said he makes no apology for wanting good public policy that puts research-proven methods into classrooms. He also doesn't apologize for opposing what he sees as bad policy, or stepping on a few toes along the way.
"Am I running the shop differently? I think I am. I'm more visible at the Capitol. Our members have been more visible at the Capitol," Dooher said. "And we're engaged in the process. I think if you put more engagement along with the political climate that we're in, you're going to get more reaction to our advocacy."
Campaign finance reports show that Education Minnesota spent roughly $860,000 on political activity in 2008, with DFL candidates reaping most of the benefits. The union also ranks at or near the top in annual spending on lobbying at the State Capitol. This year, Education Minnesota is backing DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher for governor.
Kelliher said she wants to improve the state's teacher ranks too, but she favors an approach that holds the colleges that train teachers more accountable, and ensures that school administrators are weeding out bad teachers. Kelliher is pleased with the union's endorsement, and said she doesn't quite understand the GOP criticism.
"You know I always wonder why people do that," Kelliher said. "I think it's because there are 70,000 educators in Minnesota who are part of that organization, and maybe people are a little jealous of me having that support. The second part of it is I'm going to stand by hard working educators every single step of the way."
But Republicans claim Kelliher would mostly stand in the way of meaningful reform of public education if she's governor. State GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton said DFLers already have a cozy relationship with Education Minnesota. Now, he said Kelliher is in the pocket of the union.
"Our main opponent isn't the DFL party, it's Education Minnesota," Sutton said. "They're the ones calling the shots. They're the ones pulling the strings, and we think that's bad for Minnesota, because they're standing in the way of true reform."
Education Minnesota's Tom Dooher disagrees. He said teachers want to work with like-minded legislators to make some needed improvements in an already strong public education system. But Dooher said education reform in Minnesota should not look like education reform in Mississippi.