Institutional oppression

Why Education Minnesota is the most systemically racist organization in the state.

The search for systemic racism in Minnesota should start and end with our public schools. No other system has produced a more racist outcome than Minnesota’s persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color. By fighting hard against every single education reform that would have improved the system for students of color across our state, the teachers’ union has become the most systemically racist organization in Minnesota.

I’m not arguing teachers are racists; or that Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union, holds secret KKK meetings in the basement of their headquarters. But their powerful opposition to education reform — especially school choice — has done more to systemically undermine black student achievement than any other organization.

The history of education reform in Minnesota follows a timeline of teacher union defiance and the drastic, downward trajectory of academic excellence for minority students.

In 1983, the Minnesota Legislature debated and passed a modest tax deduction for private school tuition. According to a June 15, 1983 article in the national journal Education Week by Nancy Paulu, the teachers’ union staunchly opposed the reform stating, “Local critics of the deduction, including the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) and public-education groups like the Minnesota Education Association and the Minnesota School Boards Association, staunchly oppose the law on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.”

In 1985, Minnesota adopted the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program that allowed high school students to attend local colleges and receive dual credit. One of the state’s teachers’ unions filed a lawsuit that eventually failed to block the law from being implemented. Even twenty years later, the union fought against removal of the gag rule placed on schools that prevented them from marketing PSEO to their students.

In 1988, DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich proposed a first-in-the-nation school choice program called open enrollment, allowing students to move across district lines to attend a different school. Reporting on it at the time, The Christian Science Monitor writes the teachers’ union “vigorously fought all the choice plans.” And again in 1991, DFL State Senator Ember Reichgott-Young championed charter school legislation in Minnesota, making us the first state to adopt this now universal reform. The teachers’ union opposed the original charter school bill and has been fighting charter school expansion ever since.

In 1997, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson used a special session showdown to convince a DFL House and Senate to pass tax credits for low-income families to pay for school expenses such as tutoring and personal computers. Even though the bill included an historic increase in per-pupil spending, the teachers’ union opposed it with a spokeswoman of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, Diane O’Brien saying, “No bill was better than a bad bill.”

In 2003, newly elected Gov. Tim Pawlenty hired a national leader in school reform and tasked her with replacing the Profile of Learning with a more robust school accountability system. Part of the new program included ratings for all public schools based on student performance on tests in math, reading, and science. Education Minnesota union president Judy Schaubach, said such labeling could be “counter-productive.”

In 2003, Pawlenty unsuccessfully tried to improve the teaching profession with a proposal to pay “super teachers” more money if they are willing to teach in schools with the most disadvantaged students. Schaubach said its name alone could create problems among teachers and that the proposal “could lower the quality of teaching.”

In 2005, Pawlenty successfully passed his second attempt at performance pay for teachers called QComp. Although the union initially fought the idea of tying teacher pay to student achievement, they grudgingly came around to the plan because it did provide more money for teacher salaries. But at the first opportunity the union urged the Legislature to gut the program, once again detaching pay from student performance.

The teacher’s union helped unravel every major piece of the accountability system put in place in Pawlenty’s first term, from school report cards and merit pay to graduation requirements. In 2012, one of the last remnants of the accountability plan was unceremoniously executed with the help of Education Minnesota. First called the Minnesota Basic Skills Test in 1992, the graduation requirement went through several variations until Gov. Mark Dayton killed it in 2012.

Surprising the teachers’ union in 2017, Dayton signed Legislation to end the last-in-first-out-process used to layoff teachers — a proposal he vetoed the year before. But union leader Denise Specht defiantly declared local districts and unions will still use the seniority system because “it’s easy, it’s predictable.”

In 2017, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed school choice legislation in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The plan would have allowed tax-free donations to organizations that granted scholarships to kids trying to improve their education. National teachers’ union leader Diane Ravitch issued an action alert titled “Governor Dayton, please veto the voucher legislation.”

In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace infamously stood at school doors blocking black students from gaining entry. By opposing every important education reform aimed at closing the achievement gap for students of color, Education Minnesota is no better than Wallace as they stand at the school doors preventing black students from getting out.