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State teacher's union president addresses union stance in Luverne visit

File Photo: Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher speaks with Luverne educators during a Monday rally in Hawkinson Park. (Laura Grevas/ Daily Globe)

LUVERNE -- Although Education Minnesota, the state teacher's union, is based in the Twin Cities, the issues its members tackle spread to the farthest reaches of Greater Minnesota.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher sat down with the Daily Globe earlier this week to discuss the union's stance on several education-related issues, and what its plans could mean for area educators.

The achievement gap

Among Dooher's main goals for his second term as president are closing the achievement gap between students and repairing education funding to make it equitable, sustainable, predictable and sufficient.

"We have more African-American and Hispanic kids below grade level than we do Caucasians and some Asians, so we want to make sure that all students have resources," he said.

Education Minnesota seeks a solution in the form of Centers for Teaching Excellence for students who struggle the most academically. Class sizes would be lowered to 18 students per teacher, and teachers would be given more professional development.

"We know that if we can help (students) learn to read by age nine, about grade three, the achievement gap shrinks significantly. And when they don't have those skills by grade three, it takes about four times as long to develop those skills," Dooher said.

But that doesn't mean all CTEs would be concentrated in lower grade levels only.

"We can't just write off the kids that are past elementary age; we've got to put in the resources wherever they're (needed)," he said.

Teacher incentives

The measure would require more teachers, and Dooher contended the union and educational institutions should take a proactive role in recruiting them.

"We could have a loan forgiveness program for those teachers that want to come to Worthington or Greater Minnesota. We see that now with doctors and other professionals, they create incentives for those that want to come to Greater Minnesota; that's something that we should be able to do."

He said all students should be asked to consider the profession in high schools and universities.

"We have to start talking to kids in high school about 'Have you thought about being a teacher?' with ethnic minority kids and with all kids," he said. "All we've done in the past is sort of hope that we get the best and the brightest and hope we get ethnic minorities and we've got to get past hope and get to action."

Equitable resources

"One thing I've learned from traveling around the state is these are not urban versus Greater Minnesota issues; these are just issues that kids in schools are having," Dooher said, speaking about funding distribution around the state. "Worthington has almost as many languages as Minneapolis. ... Equity does not mean that everyone gets the same dollar amount, equity means that if you need more resources in Worthington, you're going to get them."

He said the burden for school funding should rely less on a community's business owners and property tax wealth and more on the state.

"Districts that have managed their money well have fund balances, and the state has not managed its money well and they're borrowing from schools to pay general operating expenses. To us, that's backwards," Dooher said.

Contract negotiations

Less than a week after the Luverne Education Association settled its contract with the district, Dooher said 15 districts still had not. More teachers' unions than usual were unable to settle by the state-mandated Jan. 15 deadline.

"What we're seeing is historic sacrifices by teachers to get their contracts settled. And what that tells me is they care about their community and making sure the kids have what they need," Dooher said. "Teachers aren't worried so much about their pay as they are about 'Do they have a class size that's manageable?' 'Do they have the resources for the kids?'"

In addition to historically low salary increases, educators say they're being hit hard by rising health insurance premiums that aren't keeping pace with their incomes.

Health insurance

Education Minnesota advocates use of a mandatory statewide school insurance pool that would include all employees from janitors to teachers to superintendents. The larger pool would mitigate sharp premium increases by spreading the risk over a pool of about 200,000 people, Dooher said.

"We believe this is a good plan and that we can see that it's going to save money," he said. According to information from Minnesota Management & Budget, the plan would save school districts an estimated $10.6 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year and nearly $83 million in the 2012-2013 biennium.

The plan would provide good coverage and a variety of choice in healthcare providers, Dooher said.

Alternative licensure

The state union has also taken a stance against alternative teacher licensure, a program that aims to fasttrack those with non-education post-secondary degrees into the classroom.

"Quality teachers are going to give you quality results with students," he said. "It doesn't make sense to us that as we raise standards for students, we would lower them for those that want to get into education."