The teachers’ union bankrupted Minneapolis schools

Minneapolis school finance officials gave a very sobering presentation to board members recently, warning that enrollment losses coupled with district spending will bankrupt the district in two short years. There are three major reasons for this, and two of them are the fault of the Minneapolis teachers’ union.

The main reason the Minneapolis school district is going bankrupt is directly the result of the teacher contract the union achieved after their strike last March. As the chart below shows, the district agreed to unsustainable pay increases and class size caps in that deal. Former Superintendent Ed Graff knew the contract was unsustainable the minute he signed it, and subsequently announced his resignation.

FY 23 Pro Forma Minneapolis Public Schools

By agreeing to huge pay increases in FY22 and FY23 for teachers, education support professionals and bus drivers, the school board put the district into a giant fiscal hole. As we have written before, the whole strike was an attempt to blackmail the rest of the state to help Minneapolis recover from their own self-inflicted wounds. It didn’t work in 2022, but don’t count Minneapolis out in 2023 with a new DFL legislature and an appetite to “fully fund education.”

The top priority for the union is always their membership — pay, benefits, working conditions. That’s why they always push “reforms” like lower class sizes, despite the dubious results for academic achievement. Smaller classes mean more classes, which require more teachers.

The second problem Minneapolis faces is a steep decline in enrollment. Since the state allocates funding based on a per-pupil formula, less kids equals less revenue. Part of the loss of students is explained by demographics, as described in detail here by Bill Glahn. There are simply fewer kids being born in the city of Minneapolis.

FY 23 Pro Forma Minneapolis Public Schools

City leaders and school board members should have a joint discussion to identify the policy choices driving young families out of the city or preventing others from moving in. Creating a woke urban paradise with a vibrant nightlife that attracts young professionals is not sustainable if people don’t feel safe, property taxes are too high, and parents decide to move once their oldest child reaches kindergarten age. Someone should start conducting exit interviews with the families leaving the city and find out why.

A different set of exit interviews should be conducted by the families that stay in Minneapolis but are making a different school choice. They will tell you the product is failing, which gets us to the third reason Minneapolis is going bankrupt: teacher unions in Minneapolis and their partners at the state level have opposed every major education reform ever proposed in Minnesota history.

The unions are stubbornly clinging to an education model based on inputs like class size and teacher pay while parents vote with their feet and leave public schools in droves.

A partial list of Minnesota education reforms opposed by the teachers’ union:

In 1983, the Minnesota legislature debated and passed a modest tax deduction for private school tuition. According to an article in the national Education Week journal, the teachers’ union staunchly opposed the reform writing, “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 teacher unions filed a lawsuit to block the law from being implemented (it failed). Even 20 years later, the union fought to remove the gag rule placed on schools that prevented them from marketing PSEO to their students.

In 1988, DFL Governor 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. The teachers’ union “vigorously fought all the choice plans.”

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 have been fighting charter school expansion ever since. In her book about the charter school movement titled Zero Chance of Passage, Reichgott-Young titled one chapter “The Unions Rise Up” and another “The Unions: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” As a Democrat, Sen. Reichgott-Young had received teacher union endorsement in all of her campaigns up until her support for charter schools.  

In 1997, Republican Governor 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 saying, “no bill was better than a bad bill.”

Gov. Carlson knew what he was up against in his fight with the union:

“The National Education Association is not an association. It’s a union. It’s really a cartel. They are a monopoly, and we really should not be surprised at the results of a monopoly. Their agenda is not the children’s agenda. When I sought to change the system, they said “We oppose everything.” It was arbitrary and knee-jerk. Everything was nyet, nyet, nyet. Like Khrushchev.”

In 2003, newly elected Gov. Tim Pawlenty hired a national leader in school reform and tasked her with abolishing the Profile of Learning and replacing it with a robust system of school accountability. Part of the new system included a rating system for all public schools based on student performance on tests in math, reading and science. Union president Judy Schaubach said such labeling could be “counter-productive.” The union vigorously fought Pawlenty’s entire reform agenda and subsequently led the charge to remove his education commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke after the House and Senate passed his reforms.

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. Union president Judy Schaubach said its name alone could create problems among teachers and the proposal “could lower the quality of teaching.” The idea of paying teachers more based on merit or difficulty of assignment is antithetical to a trade union. Education Minnesota’s opposition to the super teachers proposal exposed the fact that they are more like the Teamsters and less like doctors and lawyers, as they often want to be portrayed.  

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 and detach pay from student performance. QComp still exists today but shockingly, every teacher receives the same pay raises. So much for merit pay.

In 2007, Pawlenty summed up the opposition of teacher unions to education reform (and Minnesota governors) in a speech to local elected officials:

“You’ll recall when Perpich ran for governor, he was the darling of Education Minnesota. When he left, they wanted to kill him. Carlson ran with the endorsement of Education Minnesota, when he left, they wanted to kill him. Ventura flirted with them, in the end they wanted to kill him too. They never liked me from the beginning.”

In 2012, one of the last remnants of Pawlenty’s accountability system 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 finally killed it in 2012. 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 to merit pay to graduation requirements.

In 2017, Gov. Mark Dayton surprised the teachers’ union by signing legislation to end the last-in-first-out process used to layoff teachers. Dayton vetoed the proposal the year before. With last-in-first-out, new teachers full of energy and talent get summarily let go during budget cuts based solely on their place in the seniority line. Teachers who have been there longer, no matter their talent, no matter the test scores of their students, get to stay while younger teachers are given pink slips. Union leader Denise Specht said local districts and unions will still use the seniority system because “it’s easy, it’s predictable.” “There’s nothing in this bill preventing districts from carrying existing polices forward, and we expect most districts will do so,” Specht said in a press release opposing the reform.

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 who granted scholarships to kids trying to improve their education. A huge coalition was built that year including strong support from minority parents looking for better options for their kids. Catholic Bishop Anthony Cozzens met with Gov. Dayton and felt confident he received a commitment to sign the bill if it got to his desk. But the teachers’ union had the last word with Dayton and he vetoed the bill. National union leader Diane Ravitch issued an action alert titled “Governor Dayton, please veto the voucher legislation.” Ravitch successfully demagogued the bill equating the tax breaks for scholarships with vouchers.

Real school choice is the biggest reform yet to be tried here in Minnesota. Unions portray choice as an attempt by conservatives to ruin public education in favor of private schools that will provide profits for their owners, which makes little sense because most private schools are non-profit entities. They ignore the fact that public schools now educate 89% of Minnesota students and that number will not change much even with a robust school choice program.

The real goal for school choice is twofold. First, to immediately allow students in persistently failing schools a chance to improve their lot in life by transferring to a better school before it’s too late. Second, to inject enough competition into the entire system to begin to influence all schools to adopt the reforms necessary to compete. “We keep losing students to that school down the street. Maybe we should start doing what they’re doing.”

If the union doesn’t wake up and advocate for stronger public schools through real education reform, they will find themselves turning off the lights in the last public school in Minneapolis as it closes for good.