Prominent Education Reform Group Pulls Out of MN

Updated: 07/12/2014 7:07 AM
Created: 07/12/2014 8:00 AM

(KSTP) - One of the country's most controversial education reform groups is pulling out of Minnesota. StudentsFirst announced it will be leaving the state. It's a change that could impact education in Minnesota and your child's classroom.

The education reform movement is pushing for change on a range of fronts, from standardized testing, to teacher evaluations and "last in, first out" teacher-tenure laws. Those issues are at the heart of a debate, which took an unexpected turn in Minnesota this week.

StudentsFirst is one of the most prominent, and polarizing, education reform groups in the country. Now, it's time in Minnesota is over.

"This is a really thoughtful, strategic decision by StudentsFirst because it allows them to be more impactful with their resources and talents in other states," said Kathy Saltzman, who had served as the StudentsFirst state director in Minnesota.

Saltzman said the move is based on national priorities and insisted Minnesota is still tilting toward reform.

"I totally support the work that will continue to be done, and I see great things happening in Minnesota," Saltzman said.

"Anytime you lose a partner like that, you always have to be thinking about, 'How can we make sure we're elevating even more voices to advocate for changes that are necessary?'" said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, which is the state chapter of 50CAN, a national education reform group. MinnCAN is pushing for some of the same changes StudentsFirst was working toward on issues like teacher tenure and evaluations. Sellers said if there is a lesson to be learned, it's that anything perceived as a national, top-down approach won't work in Minnesota.

"You have to start with a local board, local fundraising, and you have to get out and spend time in schools and in the community," Sellers said, adding that MinnCAN has been doing just that.

In a sense, Education Minnesota agrees. The teacher's union's president, Denise Specht, blames the strategy employed by StudentsFirst, saying, "Most national education reform franchises don't understand a basic fact about Minnesota, which is that Minnesotans overwhelmingly appreciate and respect the teachers who work in their schools. So when someone in an office far away directs the local staff to push an attack agenda on public education generally, and teachers specifically, it doesn't resonate."

"Minnesota has some of the best schools and students in the nation, but everyone who has ever stood at the front of a classroom full of Minnesota kids knows we can do better," Specht said. "It's important to have conversations with parents, students, educators and community leaders about the best ways forward, but that's not the model the franchises use. They treat education policies like Happy Meals, selling the same solutions in state after state regardless of whether those policies meet a local need. It just doesn't work in Minnesota."

Saltzman said it's time Minnesota woke up to the need for new ideas.

"The status quo is really hard to change. That's the piece that we can't give up on," Saltzman said.

StudentsFirst also just announced plans to leave Florida. It's one of countless national organizations that is presumably refocusing its efforts on pivotal election battlegrounds this November. The teacher's union is currently winning the battle for political influence in Minnesota. Education Minnesota holds a decisive edge, pouring $2.37 million into lobbying at the state capitol over the past two-and-a-half years. Four of Minnesota's largest education reform groups, StudentsFirst, 50CAN, Students for Education Reform and Teach for America, combined to spend about $960,000 in lobbying over the same time period.