Pawlenty rolls out education initiatives

Published 9:08 am Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s first burst of proposals for the 2009 legislative session seeks to change how teachers get into the profession, how they’re paid and how they keep their skills fresh.

Pawlenty toured some of the state by plane Tuesday to discuss his education initiatives, some of which he has pursued before and others that build on programs his administration has enacted. The governor was slated to land at the Albert Lea Municipal Airport with Department of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday. He had to cancel because of a thunderstorm that struck southern Minnesota in the afternoon. Albert Lea had been the site last week of an education funding meeting convened by the Minnnesota House of Representatives K-12 Finance Division.

“This is not a criticism of teachers. It is not teacher-bashing in any respect,” Pawlenty said, adding, “As times change and practices change and things change, we need to modernize and improve our expectations for teachers in Minnesota as well. And even we can improve even though Minnesota has done so well for so long.”

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Other facets of his plan include expanded training programs for school principals and summer school programs geared toward eighth-graders whose test results show a need for extra help in math and reading.

His education package is silent on the item important to many school leaders: How much new money they can count on from the state, which provides the biggest share of their classroom funding. As has been the case most of his six years as governor, Pawlenty is almost certain to be staring at a budget deficit when the session opens in January.

“It would be unwise for anyone to stand up and start promising major new funding commitments for anything until we get the full and final look at the state’s forecast,” Pawlenty said.

Democratic Rep. Mindy Greiling, chairwoman of a House education committee, said the package doesn’t contain new ideas and frustratingly avoids the larger-picture question over school dollars.

“The governor is putting a finger in the dike, spitting in the wind,” she said, “but he didn’t talk about the elephant in the room.”

Teacher effectiveness is central to his proposal.

Noting that one-half of Minnesota’s teachers are due to retire within the next two decades, Pawlenty said the focus needs to be on recruiting, training and maintaining a top-notch teaching corps.

The Republican governor said he wants to tie teacher raises to improvement in student performance. It’s a step further than the QComp law Minnesota enacted a few years ago that emphasized merit in pay decisions.

The plan would order schools that don’t volunteer to take part in QComp — which requires union and school board buy-in — to set aside new money in teacher contracts for raises pegged to student achievement. Test scores would be the main tool for measuring that progress and there would be accommodations made for teachers in challenging environments, Pawlenty said.

In addition, he is seeking tougher entrance requirements for college students thinking about becoming teachers. It includes higher minimums on teacher certification tests and tougher requirements on teacher training programs themselves.

For current teachers, he would place standards on so-called professional development, such as seminars held during the school year meant to convey the latest trends in education. School districts currently set aside 2 percent of their state money for professional development.

As he has proposed in the past, Pawlenty would open classrooms to scientists and other professionals looking for a change in careers. They would help fill teacher shortages in math and science.

Tom Dooher, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, said Pawlenty seems to contradict himself with the toughened standards for young teachers and the side door for others looking to break into the field. Dooher said Minnesota shouldn’t back down when it comes to licensure.

“It’s an art and a science,” Dooher said. “Just because you have a degree in math and science does not mean you can teach it. We would like to see that if you are coming in that you don’t take a shortcut into the profession.”

Dooher said he was encouraged that Pawlenty extended a hand to the union with a private briefing ahead of the announcement and spoke of a willingness to work together.

“We’re excited he put education at the top of his agenda and that he’s talking about quality teachers,” Dooher said. “We are cautiously optimistic about collaborating with the governor and the Legislature.”