Will the Gopher State Go Tenure Free?

Will Minnesota be the snow-covered setting for Vergara 2.0?

By Sarah Lahm, EduShyster Academy 
gopher stateNerves are on edge here in the Gopher State, as a question deep as the looming snow fall hangs in our reform-scented air: Will we, or won’t we? As in, will Minnesota, or won’t Minnesota be chosen as the next battleground in the fight to rout out *grossly ineffective* teachers, a la California’s Vergara decision? Intrigue, already piqued, piqued up further recently when Marcellus McRae, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case and a member of the White Collar Defense club at the LA law offices of Gibson Dunn, made a special pilgrimage to the Twin Cities.

white bearCan we talk tenure?
Attorney McRae came to town to talk tenure at the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce, an area known for its scenic lakes and forward thinking, but not for grossly ineffective teachers. These were undoubtedly lurking just down the road, in the urban centers of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But before McRae could brave his planned lunch at the Chamber of Commerce, where the questions were sure to be as salty as a plate of lutefisk, he had to endure a breathless fawning over in the offices of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

According to reporter Kim McGuire, McRae was barely in the door before he was peppered with questions about whether or not Minnesota’s tenured-teacher problem would finally be stopped, once and for all:

Before he had a chance to take his coat off, McRae was asked about the likelihood Minnesota would have to defend its teacher tenure laws in court.

Like candy…
candy dispenserThe answer, of course, is yes. Horrifyingly, McRae has uncovered a terrible truth about the Land of 10,000 Lakes: We dispense tenure like it’s candy, throwing it into the undeserving laps of anyone with a pulse who stays in the classroom for at least three years. As McRae explained to the Trib, tenure in Minnesota *is not tied to job performance.* Just like it isn’t, or wasn’t, in California, until McRae and Silicon Valley millionaire and charter school champion David Welch set about setting the system aright. (My 2013 interview with a Minneapolis teacher about the evaluation process might have provided McRae with some interesting background reading here.)

In fact, had McRae been able to spare a billable hour or two to read up on the Gopher State and her teaching woes he might have encountered one or three of these inconvenient details:

  • We certainly do have a tenured teacher problem here in Minnesota: experienced teachers are in short supply in the most challenging Minneapolis Public School buildings. This is true, says Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt, despite significant breaks in the *iron grip of seniority* and an ever-expanding autonomy that allows principals to hire, more or less, whomever they like. And yet transformational growth has not followed this silver bullet strategy. Will a new silver-bullet strategy, eliminating tenure, at last help us solve this problem? I hope some wise soul at the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce event thought to ask Counselor McRae this question.
  • Meanwhile, out in rural Minnesota, there are just not enough teachers to go around. Teachers in the hinterland, where winter comes even earlier than in the cities that grossly ineffective teachers call home, make less money and often have to wear as many, if not more, winter hats than their urban counterparts. Is tenure also keeping our best and brightest from these teaching positions? Will a big, dramatic lawsuit in search of a problem fix this for us? Marcellus? Are you still there?
  • I know it is considered gauche to utter the word *poverty,* but a July 2014 report makes it clear that child poverty in Minnesota is, well, kind of a problem. I know, I know…who invited Miss. Buzz Kill to the sailing party anyway? But here’s the thing. If Minnesota is going to become the next place where tenure gets brought to its well-protected knees, can we also expect someone to hold a press conference about the growing number of Minnesota kids who are poor? While Minnesota, on the whole, is still a great place to be a kid, this is much less true for children of color, who tend to be concentrated in under-resourced, high-poverty neighborhoods. How about a high-profile lawsuit against poverty, complete with a veritable bench of corporate backers?

Paging an army of lawyers
Meanwhile, the winter snow is already falling here in the education reform hub, piling up like so many ideas for improving our failed and failing public schools. Marcellus, do not keep us waiting another moment! When you are done defending Wal-Mart or Chevron from a fiercely urgent misunderstanding, will you please help us end the travesty of tenure in our home state?

Sarah Lahm once worked as an English teacher and is now busy building a career as a corporate education reform crime fighter. She also has a bunch of kids who attend public schools in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

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