Pawlenty tells lawmakers to pass teacher proposals

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks to reporters during a press conference at the state Capitol Thursday, April 8. The governor is calling on lawmakers to pass legislation he says is urgently needed to ensure the state has a better chance of winning federal education money this summer, in a program called "Race to the Top."
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is singling out three pieces of legislation he says must pass this spring, if the state is to have any chance of winning federal education money this summer.

Pawlenty said the measures will address parts of Minnesota's application that lost points in the "Race to the Top" competition.

The Republican governor said Minnesota won't even apply for a second round of funding if the DFL-controlled Legislature fails to act.

"They're going to have to choose whether they're going to stand on the side of reform and improvement in students, or whether they're going to stand on the side of a 1940s archaic, industrial system filled with interest groups that stop change and reform," said Pawlenty during a Capitol news conference Thursday morning. "I know what I pick. Now they get to pick."

Pawlenty's proposals include measures to let experts in other fields become teachers more easily, a practice referred to as alternative licensure; make it easier to reassign and fire teachers; and link teacher pay to student performance.

Democratic leaders say they're working on a number of changes, but they won't necessarily include everything the governor wants -- even if it means turning down tens of millions of federal dollars.

"If the governor wants to cheapen our application with things we don't think are good for students, we're not wanting the money that badly," said State Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

Greiling said the teacher licensure language has a good chance of passing this session, but she singled out at least one proposal she opposes.

That measure would require the renewal of tenure for teachers every five years, which Greiling says amounts to eliminating tenure.

The governor took the extra step of flying around the state to make his pitch, at events in St. Paul, Rochester, St. Cloud Duluth and Moorhead. It's the second event in two days the governor has hosted to push for the legislative changes around the Race to the Top application.

Pawlenty said the proposals he's pushing for -- which he's tried and failed to pass in previous years -- would greatly improve a second application for the federal money because they fall into the very categories where Minnesota missed points.

Greiling disagrees with that notion, pointing to areas where the state missed points that the governor is not addressing. One is the category titled "Improving Student Outcomes," in which reviewers of Minnesota's application pointed out the state's inability to close the achievement gap.

Tom Dooher, the president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, issued a statement Thursday questioning the governor's desire to even apply a second time.

"Today's 'take it or leave it' ultimatum makes it clear he's made a decision to not attempt a second application," said Dooher.

Dooher also noted there's been no attempt by the governor to convene all interested parties to negotiate a compromise. The governor had earlier noted that the "ball is in their (the Legislature's) court."

In addition to the three bills Pawlenty is pushing for, the governor also called for other changes that are not yet included in any pending legislation.

Those include granting the state's education commissioner the authority to intervene in low-performing schools; and developing a definition of a "highly effective teacher."