The group founded by former Washington, D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is ramping up its presence in Minnesota. Since December, the group StudentsFirst has registered four lobbyists with the state. Minnesota presents a 'unique and interesting opportunity' because of the widespread focus among the state's education community on closing the achievement gap, Rhee said.
At the moment, Rhee's group is focused on repealing Minnesota's LIFO law. LIFO stands for 'Last In, First Out' - it refers to the state's teacher seniority law that mandates, absent a local contract that says otherwise, seniority will drive decisions when layoffs are needed. Rhee says LIFO "absolutely makes no sense" because it potentially means a district would have to lay off some of its best teachers.
"If your priority is doing what's fair for adults, seniority is the way you should go," Rhee said. "But we run our public education systems, not for the benefit of adults, but for the benefit of children."
LIFO was the topic of a discussion on MPR's Midmorning on Jan. 31. Since that conversation, legislation at the state Capitol to repeal LIFO has passed the House and was approved in a state Senate committee on Tuesday.
The proposal would base layoffs instead on a teacher's evaluations. Critics say it would be difficult to tie any teacher layoff system in Minnesota to evaluations because the system to evaluate teachers is still being developed. But Rhee says that's actually the reason why LIFO should be repealed now - lawmakers should make the statement now that they want to base layoffs on performance and develop the evaluation system to accommodate that.
Some Democrats have said the bill is an attack on teacher tenure. Others, including House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, have said the bill misses the point because it does nothing to address underfunded schools.
Tom Dooher, the president of the state's teachers' union, Education Minnesota, said in a recent op-ed in the Mankato Free Press that research has repeatedly shown students learn more from experienced teachers. He questions whether there really is a link between improving the quality of teaching and removing seniority protections.
Dooher and other union leaders also note that LIFO is triggered when a tight budget necessitates layoffs. If a district goes three years without layoffs, LIFO would never be used.
Mary Cathryn Ricker, the head of the St. Paul teachers' union, recently told Minnpost that layoffs shouldn't be the impetus for removing bad teachers. She said districts and union locals should be constantly working together to get rid of the ineffective teachers.