State teachers union faces a new political landscape

Garofalo and Greiling
State Reps. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, speaking to a meeting of the Association of Metro School Districts on Friday, Jan. 7, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

A once-dominant player at the state capitol faces a new political landscape this legislative session.

After years in the minority, Republicans took control of the Legislature in the November elections. The governor's office is held by Mark Dayton, a Democrat who was not initially endorsed by the state's teachers union.

As a result, Education Minnesota, which has a better relationship with Democrats, could wield far less clout. But no one is counting the state teachers union out yet.

Like many people in Minnesota politics, Education Minnesota president Tom Dooher has spent recent weeks trying to get to know all the new sheriffs in town.

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"The governor was not a friend of ours over the last eight years, and we had more friends in legislature," Dooher said. "Now it's the opposite."

Democratic lawmakers and DFL-friendly groups received most of the more than $1.2 million in political contributions the union made last year. Education Minnesota did endorse Dayton's successful bid for governor, but only after Dayton won the August primary over former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. She had the union's original endorsement.

But even with Republicans in charge and a governor in office who the union didn't originally endorse, Dooher said he thinks his union's political sway will stay the same.

"I don't think our influence has been diminished at all," he said. "I think people realize education is an important factor and it's going to help drive the economy, and so I think we're still going to be a strong player and we'll be very influential."

Dooher said if he learned anything from Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state Republicans, it's that they showed how powerful a governor can be, even when his party doesn't control the Legislature.

But others aren't so sure.

"With Republicans in the Legislature, I think they certainly have waned in power," state Rep. Mindy Greiling said of the teacher's union.

Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chaired a key education committee until the Republicans took control. The union endorsed Greiling's re-election last year. She said Dayton and the union agree on many issues, and Dayton often defended the union during the campaign, but she's not sure there's much of a political IOU to be paid.

"I think any Democrat always owes the union something," Greiling said. "They have a lot of money and they have a lot of members, and we are people who believe in a fair workplace and good wages and all of that. But as far as owing them his political life, his governorship, he doesn't."

Greiling wonders if the Republicans will use their newfound majority to get back at the union politically.

But Pat Garofalo, the Republican who took Greiling's chairmanship of the education finance committee, said that won't happen.

Garafolo, of Farmington, has often criticized the union and he said he met Dooher for the first time last week. But Garafolo insists his goal this session won't be to score points against the union. Everyone is welcome to the debate, he said.

"The union is no different than the school boards association, than the superintendents, they are A voice in the education debate," he said. "They are no more powerful or less powerful than the rest of them. So, these efforts that have been used in the past to kind of give them veto power - those days are gone."

Dayton said whether Education Minnesota has lost influence isn't the question he thinks needs to be asked.

"How do you, here in Minnesota, provide quality public education to 825,000 school children? That is about the quality of those individual teachers in those classrooms," Dayton said. "It's not about a monolithic block that some people call a union."

Even if Education Minnesota has lost some political sway, no one's counting them out.

Charlie Kyte, a lobbyist who works on behalf of school superintendents, said in politics fortunes always ebb and flow.

"Yes, I think Education Minnesota -- while still an important player -- is not going to be the total dominant player," Kyte said. "They're still a force to be reckoned with and they represent an awful lot of people in the state."

The debate, and maybe the first signs of whether the union's influence has changed, will surface this week.

Republicans have indicated they want to act fast on what was a big fight last year -- alternative teacher licensure, which allows people who don't take the traditional path of going to college to study education to become teachers in Minnesota. The union has expressed concern that such teachers won't have met the same rigorous standards.

Garofalo expects bills to be introduced at the capitol this week. Education Minnesota, meanwhile, will hold a press conference on Tuesday. Alternative licensure will be among the topics discussed.