St. Paul teachers want to do "phenomenal things" for their students. At least that's what Nick Faber of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers tells me. But what's been holding back him and his fellow educators are the same obstacles to progress in many of our communities: a culture of financial austerity combined with a political lack of will to tax corporations and the wealthy.
But Faber and his union brothers and sisters may have just taught progressives a valuable lesson in how to take on those impediments and win, not just for students and schools but for the common good of our communities.
The Money Problem
Teachers were unified with educational assistants and special school services employees in pushing a range of proposals that mostly centered on the needs of students. Rank-and-file members voted overwhelmingly to walk the picket line if their demands weren't met. Then the union upped the pressure by announcing a walk-out date that would have been four days earlier than the original date.
The chief impediments to the eventual settlement were, "the district didn't want certain things in the contract that we were insisting on," says Faber, "things that have to do with students."
The problems boiled down to money.
While the union got quick tentative agreements on "cost-neutral" proposals, the district was most reluctant to agree on things that cost money, including reducing class sizes, improving education services for English learners and special education students, and funding the implementation of restorative practices – an approach to school discipline that focuses on reconciliation rather than harsh punishments.
Reducing class sizes necessitates hiring more teachers and perhaps building more classrooms. Improving the learning experiences for children who don't speak English well or who have learning disabilities requires hiring new staff specialists with expertise in those areas. And implementing new discipline practices means teachers have to be trained in the new practices, and they need time for the process of reconciliation to play out.
For years, public officials, regardless of political party, haven't been willing to make the tough decisions to fund schools and other services vital to the public well-being, including healthcare, transportation, and housing.
Minnesota, normally thought of as one of the more progressive states in the nation, has for the past few decades trended with most of the rest of the country in cutting public services while giving more tax breaks to private organizations and the wealthiest individuals.
Education funding has been particularly hard hit, with aid to public schools nearly $1 billion short, in inflation adjusted dollars, of what it was in FY 2003, according to a calculation by the North Star Policy Institute. Nearly $400 million of this reduction is concentrated in just two districts: Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the districts with the highest concentrations of low-income black and brown students.
Recently, Minnesota increased education spending to slightly exceed pre-recession levels. But funding increases have been too small to keep pace with the growing needs of educating English language learners and students with learning disabilities.
The inadequate funding is also amplified by the exodus of students who use the state's "school choice" options to transfer to other districts or to charter schools and take their per-pupil funding with them.
"If we had the resources we had back in the early 70s, we'd be able to do phenomenal things," Faber tells me. "We know so much more about teaching to the whole child, differentiating instruction, and providing things like social-emotional support. And better assessments have revealed more about the hidden racism in the system."
The "back in the early 70s" Faber refers to is what is historically known as the "Minnesota Miracle."
At that time, school financing was in disarray due to the system's over-reliance on local property taxes, which were rising at alarming rates to pay for rapidly growing schools. In low-income communities where property values were worth less, local educational funding couldn't pay for good schools.
To relieve the financial pressure on local governments and generate more funding for low-income communities, state lawmakers led by then-Governor Wendell Anderson instituted a massive reform that increased the state’s share of public school funds from 43 percent to 65 percent.
Also, the distribution of school aid was reformed to assure much greater equity of funding between richer and poorer school districts. And the contribution of the commercial-industrial property tax base in the Twin Cities was upped to 40 percent.
These reforms are what made Minnesota's method for school funding one of the more progressive approaches in the nation.
Where the Money Is
Since the Minnesota Miracle, political pressure from big businesses and the wealthy, and the conservative politicians they donate to, have chipped away at government spending on public services, Faber believes.
With less funding, many schools could no longer afford the resources and services Minnesota families were used to – such as art and music programs, small class sizes, teacher assistants, and school specialists. When the quality of education programs dropped, teachers got the blame.
Using their contract negotiations as leverage, St. Paul teachers aimed to address underfunding by publicly calling on the district to join forces with them to go after big money holders to pay their fair share to support public schools.
"We've been asking the district and the school to be an activist partner with us in getting the resources schools and kids need to be successful," Faber says. "They've been reluctant to do this so far."
The union is also targeting large nonprofits in the Twin Cities that shirk their responsibilities to the community through their tax status. These organizations often make a big show of the large donations to schools. But the donations don't in any way make up for the tax breaks they get, Faber argues. "The big gifts just make us blind to the reality," he insists.
Applying Pressure to Big Money
Despite the school administration's reluctance, the teachers began to apply pressure.
Prior to the Super Bowl kicking off in the Twin Cities, the union called out corporations funding the Host Committee for avoiding $300 million in state income taxes over the past five years while lavishing donations on commercializing the event.
SPFT presented a detailed analysis showing Minnesota corporations had benefited from changes in state laws to substantially lower their effective tax rates and sequester much of their holdings in offshore tax havens.
The city had also given businesses millions of dollars in various forms of tax abatements that subsidize companies by refunding or diverting a portion of their taxes. And big businesses use their charitable contributions to local schools for public relations purposes while dodging far larger amounts of tax contributions they could be paying to the community. For instance, US Bank, which is headquartered in the Twin Cities, contributed $80,000 to the Saint Paul Public Schools last year but benefits from $1 million a year in tax abatements from the city.
The union also pointed out how the wealthiest Minnesotans have benefited from years of tax cuts. The 18 percent in state income tax rate they paid in 1977 has been nearly halved to 9.5 percent today.
"Minnesota is a rich state and our corporations here make millions of dollars profiting off our communities," the analysis stated. "By avoiding paying for public services – including our public schools – our large corporate neighbors are actively harming the next generation of Minnesotans."
Not Education Only
In addition to calling out corporations and the wealthy for not paying their fair share, SPFT reached out to parents and taxpayers in the community.
"An important piece in the contract discussion is to use the negotiations to amplify to the community that it's about giving schools what students need," Faber tells me, not just about providing teachers with better pay. "Our contention is that we want to do the things the community wants us to do like have smaller class sizes and restorative discipline, but we need the funding to do that."
Much of the outreach had a social justice theme, Sarah Jaffe reports for New Republic. She points to the union's formation of TIGER (Teaching and Inquiring about Greed, Equity, and Racism) Teams that brought together teachers and community members to meet monthly and discuss the intersectional needs in the community.
"All the other issues in the community – homelessness, inadequate wages –they all impact education," Faber says. Teachers see the trauma of homeless students when they show up in their classrooms. They know students won't get any help with homework when they have parents who work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
"We spend a lot of time coalition building with other local organizations," Faber tells me, including Fight for $15, Blacks Lives Matter, and others. "We have to organize that base."
One consequence of this kind of broad-based organizing is that parents in St. Paul are visibly on the teachers' side and have become vehemently opposed to any proposals to further cut funding for their children's schools.
St. Paul Teachers FTW
First reports about the major agreements in the contract settlement seem to indicate a strong win for the union.
The district has agreed to hire 30 additional teachers to work with English language learners, 23 additional support staff to work with special education students, and additional staff to help with student support services including health and wellness. The district also agreed to use hard caps to maintain smaller class sizes rather than ranges that can be gamed.
But what about bringing additional funding to the schools? "This was always the major sticking point in the negotiations," according to Faber, "but we did a great job of elevating the issue" to a greater importance than the union had done in the past.
The teachers were able to get "some" agreement from the district to partner with them on pressuring corporations and large nonprofits to contribute more financial resources to schools and in lobbying state government for increased funding, especially for special education. The union and the district also agreed to consider drafting a referendum for voters to approve more funding for schools.
There are still unresolved issues to work for in future negotiations with the district, Faber tells me, especially in strengthening the schools' mental health services.
But the St. Paul teachers have demonstrated how far organizers for progressive causes can go when they bargain for the common good versus the corporations.
"Our survival depends on it," Faber says. "We run the risk of losing public education if we don't."