The house is burning: What the teachers strike tells us about the crisis in education | Opinion

March 18, 2022 6:06 am

Minneapolis teachers rallied outside the Minneapolis Public Schools central office during the first day of their strike on March 8, 2022. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

Imagine teachers as a family trapped in a house on fire. They are standing in the windows waving their arms and jamming the 911 lines with calls to the fire department. They’ve been doing what they can to extinguish the flames using the tools at their disposal, but it’s getting too hot, it’s moving too quickly.

They’ll be engulfed, along with all of the kids inside, if they don’t employ a different strategy to put out the fire.

Some of them are about to run screaming for the exits. A recent National Education Association poll showed 55% of teachers are considering leaving the profession earlier than planned, and conversations with union leaders across the country suggest such exits have begun with atypical mid-year resignations.

And why shouldn’t they all leave? They can’t continue to pour a bucket of water here and there and watch the house burn.

In their most recent contract negotiations, Minneapolis teachers have joined their peers across the river in St. Paul in an approach known as “bargaining for the common good.” Union leaders have expanded the scope of bargaining beyond benefits and wages — items that might be considered narrow and self-interested — to community concerns that range from class size limits to increased investments in mental health care to relationships with financial institutions.

Unfortunately, given the isolated manner in which contracts are negotiated, one by one, biennium by biennium, strained budget by strained budget, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) have reached a familiar stalemate.

In 1971, Minnesota legislators met for the longest special session in state history. For 157 days, state representatives met to simultaneously reduce schools’ dependence on local property taxes and boost state support for public education.

In the end, what became known as the Minnesota Miracle shifted the tax burden from homeowners to the state’s general fund. Schools received the same amount of funding as they did pre-Miracle but local property taxes plummeted.

Homeowners throughout the state felt relief, and because the state — rather than local districts — bore the burden of school support, funds could be redistributed to students and districts in greatest need.

With this policy shift, Minnesota became a national model of progressive school finance.

The Miracle’s intended effects, however, did not last long. At first, the policy ensured that more of a school’s funding came from the statewide general fund, so that regardless of whether a community’s property taxes or values rose, students throughout the state would be guaranteed a robust public education.

Unfortunately, over time, property taxes in many places crept up and some localities with the will and the means began to supplement state funds. The communities that did not enjoy such population and property privileges were left behind. Therefore, today, as in the 1970s, many Minnesotans likely feel at once crushed by taxes and disillusioned by educational outputs.

But unlike in 1971, today we’re facing a multi-billion dollar surplus that we can, and must, put toward education.

This is the best investment we can make because it’s one of the few policy areas where research demonstrates that “we all do better, when we all do better,” to quote the late Senator Paul Wellstone.

And as we consider not just how to spend a surplus but how to permanently allocate more funding to public education, we need to be attentive to where and how public tax dollars are spent. For example, we should examine the mismatch between funds allocated for special education and the costs of special education services and fully fund the latter using federal and state dollars.

We should also revisit funding for districts with declining enrollments, because as students leave and infrastructure and teaching populations age, education actually becomes more expensive, not less.

Lastly, teacher pay is a real issue. If we want to make this an attractive profession, particularly for more teachers of color, we have to be clear-eyed about the financial incentives that it will take.

When teachers in two of the state’s largest public school districts — two of the districts that serve a disproportionate number of students of color and kids living in poverty — are willing to go days or weeks without pay to ensure additional support for kids and adults, we should take their calls for help seriously.

The house is burning. If we don’t act now to address the root of the problem, we will lose teachers and our students’ potential. And those who don’t make it to the exits will go down in flames.

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Lesley Lavery
Lesley Lavery

Lesley Lavery is the author of “A Collective Pursuit: Teachers’ Unions and Education Reform” and a professor of political science at Macalester College.