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Column: Sleight of hand at session's end, and a missed opportunity

ST. PAUL -- The Legislature failed this session to capitalize on a chance to help change the lives of many low-income and minority students in Minnesota.

I think it's a shame -- and I think I know why it happened.

Minnesota has one of the largest academic achievement gaps in the country. The achievement gap is a measurement of how minority student test scores compare with the scores of non-minority students.

This gap in educational outcomes is a major problem that's been the source of great concern to many in Minnesota policy circles; it's also for many years been the subject of numerous articles and suggested methods to close the learning difference between white and minority students.

During the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and others made significant efforts to provide different pathways to teaching than traditional licensure.

Rep. Mariani, who chairs the K-12 Education Policy Committee in the House, recognizes that in some situations, nontraditional teachers could help minority students improve achievement.

Rep. Carlos Mariani and I may differ greatly on issues of education funding, but we do agree on alternative licensure for teachers as one way to solve the achievement gap here in Minnesota.

One program that several lawmakers including Mariani were touting -- a program that has had success in closing the achievement gap in other states -- comes from the organization "Teach for America."

This organization recruits outstanding college graduates from all backgrounds to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. The Teach for America organization provides the training and support to ensure that these young folks succeed as teachers in low-income communities.

With special instruction and mentoring these teachers go above and beyond traditional methods to lead their students to improved academic outcomes, despite the challenges that low-income and minority students face.

In order for the Teach for America recruits to teach in Minnesota schools, special legislation is required to establish alternative licensure for these highly motivated young folks. This type of nontraditional teaching program has the support of President Obama and many Democrats in Minnesota, not to mention our GOP governor, Tim Pawlenty.

But despite strong bipartisan support and a strong push from Pawlenty, the legislation for the alternative licensure that would have given these young teachers a limited teaching license in Minnesota failed to pass the Minnesota House this year.

Why did this legislation that could have provided improved academic outcomes for thousands of minority and low-income children fail?

The political power and influence of the Minnesota teachers union.

During the final days of the legislative session, the language to provide alternative teacher licensure was included in the omnibus K-12 finance bill authored by Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

When the bill was debated in the Ways and Means Committee, an amendment to remove the language from the bill was offered.

On an 11-7 vote (which isn't even close), the amendment to delete the language was defeated, and the bill was passed with the alternative-licensure language included.

With the alternative-licensure language still included in the K-12 omnibus bill, Ways and Means Chair, Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, realized the political consequences and recessed the committee.

Later that same day -- in a highly unusual legislative maneuver -- another K-12 omnibus bill was placed on the Ways and Means agenda that did not include the alternative-licensure language.

Having served in the Legislature for eight terms, I'd be shocked if this kind of highly unusual move happened without at least the knowledge and more likely the approval of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL Minneapolis.

That same evening in a House Ways and Means meeting, an attempt to add the alternative-teacher-licensure language back into the bill was made.

To no one's surprise when the vote was taken, the amendment to add back the alternative-teacher-licensure language failed. The difference was that several members were now absent for the vote and three DFL members of the committee abstained from voting.

The entire bill was then passed without the alternative-licensure language sent to the full House for consideration.

Education Minnesota, the state's powerful teachers union with 70,000 members, had prevailed in their efforts to prevent any changes to the teacher-licensing process.

Three days later, on Tuesday, May 11, the omnibus K-12 bill was debated on the House floor. Once again an amendment to add alternate teacher licensure language was made. The attempt to add the language one more time to the K-12 financing legislation failed -- this time with 68 "no" votes and 65 "yes" votes.

For their part, Education Minnesota had spent tens of thousands of dollars running television ads for weeks featuring the union president Tom Dooher imploring citizens to call their legislators and voice opposition to alternative teacher licensure.

I don't know what went on behind closed doors during that second week in May, but we all know the result: Thousands of Minnesota's minority and low-income school children were denied the opportunity of a better education.

A few days later, Education Minnesota endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher for governor. Now, it's no surprise that Education Minnesota endorsed the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor. But the fact is that Margaret Anderson Kelliher is facing a tough primary in which two opponents, Matt Entenza and Mark Dayton, will be waging campaigns that they will largely pay for with their own money, meaning they will not be beholden to powerful groups like Education Minnesota.

But Margaret Anderson Kelliher is, so she maneuvered to kill the alternative-teacher-licensure to please Education Minnesota.

And so the bipartisan effort to open the door for a few highly motivated and dedicated young teachers to enter the closed sanctuary of the powerful teachers union was slammed shut.

To me, that's a true missed opportunity for thousands of Minnesota's most challenged learners.

Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.