Capitol Players Series
MREA is the only advocacy organization for rural Minnesota that puts children first, but it is one of many educational advocacy groups in St. Paul. Some have been around a long time, while others are just emerging.

MREA is launching a series of articles to help members better understand the groups working on educational issues in the state. The purpose is to inform MREA membership, not to promote or criticize any other advocacy group for organizing and being in Minnesota’s educational political arena.

Understanding the political dynamics of these multiple interest groups requires knowledge of these multiple interest groups, who their members are (or where they get their support), their policy interests, and how active they are in pursuing their interests.

Fred Nolan
MREA Executive Director

Education Minnesota

Education Minnesota, which describes itself as “the union of 70,000 educators,” is the most well-known and largest advocacy group in Minnesota. With President Tom Dooher at the helm as the elected leader, Ed Minnesota advocates on many policy issues and endorses candidates for election to state and federal offices.

Focus: Education Minnesota identified in 2006 its “Audacious Goal” to “Be the preeminent source of excellence in teaching and learning in Minnesota.” This is to be brought about through their core value to: “Be responsible for quality teaching and learning opportunities through democratic unionism.”

Goals: Education Minnesota’s strategic plan from 2006, available on its website, outlined assumptions that are clear eyed and up-to-date, despite being six years old. One of them is as follows:

“The public image and self-image of educators and their organizations will be increasingly important in an environment where the question of ‘who is and who should be in charge of education?’ will be debated.”

Membership: The governance of Ed Minnesota is based on 20 electoral districts, nine of which are outside of the metro area. Teachers can be elected from these districts to the Representative Convention, to the Board of Directors and to committees including the Policy Development Committee, which has the primary responsibility for advocacy positions. Since Education Minnesota is a membership organization, it would be advantageous for teachers in MREA member districts to run for district and state positions in Ed Minnesota.

Leadership: Education Minnesota has two full time lobbyists (Jan Alswager-lead) and encourages members to volunteer to lobby. Union locals come to the capitol on whatever day is convenient for them, and the state staff helps them find their way and helps them connect with their legislators. Education Minnesota with its membership and staff are well represented on MDE Task Forces and working groups.

Minnesota Business Partnership

Membership in the Minnesota Business Partnership (MBP) is limited to the chief executives of large Minnesota employers or, in the case of companies headquartered outside the state, the highest-ranking representative in Minnesota. MBP sees active participation of chief executives as what differentiates it from other business organizations and key to its success in shaping policies that impact business growth and job creation in Minnesota.

Focus: Since 1977, the Minnesota Business Partnership’s mission has been based on the firm belief that the quality of life for all Minnesotans is directly linked to the state’s economic health. It believes business leaders have a responsibility to protect and improve Minnesota’s economy and quality of life. The MBP has three areas of focus at the capitol: Jobs and the Economy, Education, and Health Care.

Goals: MBP lays out its education policy agenda in its Blueprint for Education Policy Reform, based on these four guiding principles:

  • Set rigorous, world-class academic standards for all students.
  • Measure and report student progress – individually and by school – on a uniform and comparable basis.
  • Give educators flexibility to offer the programs they believe will be the most effective for their students.
  • Provide families with the ability to choose the programs that best meet their children’s academic needs.

The MBP has been very consistent on these principles. August 23, 2011, Executive Director Charlie Weaver wrote a commentary for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Is education measuring up?, in which he stated:

Until two years ago Minnesota required that high school students be proficient in basic 11th grade math in order to graduate. When school officials realized that too many students might fail the test, rather than figure how to improve student performance, they lobbied the legislature to eliminate the test. Maybe that’s why research shows that nearly 40% of Minnesota high school graduates who will show up on college campuses in the next few weeks will need remediation.

All too often, when the needs of the student come into conflict with the needs of the education system, the system wins. That some education officials would back away from a program that has done much of what it was designed to do is remarkable, and disappointing. No one is claiming that NCLB can’t be improved; I agree with those who argue that some changes are necessary. But eliminating the consequences for schools that fail to measure up – just because it is hard – is a step in the wrong direction.

A year later, he wrote on the same commentary page, State schools score better-like magic

…with the release of the state’s new Multiple Measurements Rating system (MMR), the number of schools that are red-flagged because their students aren’t making adequate yearly progress in reading and math suddenly dropped from the 1,056 identified in 2011 under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law to an astonishing 127 in 2012. Poof!

Either a thousand elementary, middle and high schools suddenly and collectively erased stubborn achievement gaps and radically upped test scores in the last 12 months, or someone is getting cute with the numbers.

(Note: Rob Prater, Superintendent of Hinckley Finlayson wrote a counterpoint a week later.)

Membership: MBP current has 110 members. An examination of the list shows that only approximately 10 of these members are headquartered in rural Minnesota.

Leadership: Jim Bartholomew is the Education Policy Director for the MBP. He currently sits on the Teacher Evaluation Task Force and the Assessment and Accountability Working Group. He has been a member of the Board of Teaching.

Growth and Justice

Growth & Justice (G&J), a think tank and policy organization, uses research, outreach and strategy-focused projects to engage policy makers, business leaders, community institutions and citizens to address the state’s economic challenges.

Focus: G&J is a non-partisan advocate for fair taxation and “smart” public investment, which includes a focus on education.

Goals: Growth and Justice produced a comprehensive report in 2008: Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students. From cradle through college, it is truly comprehensive and well worth reading. It provides data and rationale on a fresh way to think about investing new education dollars for better results:

  • Invest in the whole student from birth to college following four principles of smart investment.
  • Choose approaches proven to “work best for less” based on evidence of outcomes and economic analysis.
  • Raise enough money fairly using a progressive reform of the current tax structure – to cost-effectively support students all the way to post-secondary success.

Educational research and economic analysis sponsored by Growth & Justice indicates that an annual $1 billion investment in human capital would more than pay for itself- through higher earnings for each additional graduate, greater state tax revenue from higher wages and economic growth, and lower social costs paid by taxpayers. The group reports that each new “class” of high school dropouts could cost Minnesota more than $10 billion over the course of their lifetimes.

Leadership: Dane Smith, president of G&J, is a former reporter and prolific writer. He has had three commentaries published in Minneapolis Star Tribune within the last 12 months.

Membership: The organization’s 19-member board of directors is an eclectic group, including democrats, republicans and independents, people from the business, labor, government and nonprofit communities, and from both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. Vernae Hasbargen, former MREA executive director, currently serves on the board. G&J, established in 2002, receives its funding from hundreds of individual donors and 16 foundations.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (MCC) is very involved in legislative, regulatory and judicial advocacy. The organization rates its advocacy on behalf of the statewide business community second to none, noting its record of delivering results in the Legislature, regulatory arenas and courts.

Focus: Education is one of the MCC’s legislative advocacy areas. The rationale for why education is important to Minnesota’s businesses is as follows:

“Minnesota is approaching the perfect storm in its workforce. Our pool of workers is shrinking and is not expected to stabilize until 2025. Second, a 2010 Georgetown University study projects that, by 2018, 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will be held by individuals with some education beyond high school. Lastly, the fastest growing segments of our population are on the short end of the state’s unacceptable achievement gap. More than ever, we need all high school graduates to be ready to enter the workforce or continue their education.

Quality education and quality of life go hand-in-hand. Students need the best instruction that schools can offer if they are to compete with their peers for jobs. And Minnesota businesses require a world-class workforce to compete in today’s global economy.”

Goals: The Chamber identified these Legislative K-12 Priorities for 2012 as:

Teacher evaluations: Use teacher evaluations rather than the practice of “last in, first out” when it comes to layoff decisions. These evaluations also should permit the expansion of performance-based teacher compensation, i.e. Q Comp, to reward teachers who demonstrate the greatest growth in student achievement.

Basic skills test for teachers: Require teachers to pass a basic skills test prior to entering the classroom.

Accountable principals: Improve training and accountability for principals including assessing their leadership ability prior to hiring. Mandate principal evaluations by the superintendent, and use student achievement data to rate principal effectiveness.

You can get a greater understanding of the MCC perspective and data they are using in the organization’s Education Reform PowerPoint. The MCC has a similar approach to Early Childhood and Pre-K Education.

Community: The Minnesota Chamber tracks the voting records of every legislator on the bills they track.

Leadership: The MCC is a large organization with 38 paid staffers and Amy Walstein serving as the Director of Education and Workforce Policy Development. The MCC’s 46-member Board of Directors is composed primarily of business executives at the president and CEO levels. Of the 46, 11 of the businesses have headquarters outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.


MinnCAN, modeled after ConnCAN in Connecticut, began operating in Minnesota in January 2011 “to harness the tools of modern issue campaigns to build a statewide reform movement capable of securing and sustaining fundamental education reforms.” It is formally known as Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now.

Focus: MinnCAN focuses on getting state policy right to transform the way we educate Minnesota’s children. This does not mean trying to write every best practice into state law, but instead advancing three fundamental, self-reinforcing principles that work together to reward success, punish failure and raise the quality of everything in between:

  • Greater Choices: This includes encouraging high-performing school models to come to Minnesota and holding all charter schools to a high standard for results.
  • Greater AccountabilityBetter teacher evaluations, better school evaluations, and better systems for closing failed schools are all important ways of holding schools accountable.
  • Greater FlexibilityEach school, each community, and each child is different, and the system needs enough flexibility to allow the state to take those differences into account and increase student achievement for everyone. Flexibility also means making it easier for qualified, motivated college graduates to become teachers by expanding alternative pathways to certification. In addition, MinnCAN believes in giving principals and superintendents far more freedom in staffing decisions.

Goals: In the Playbook for Education in Minnesota, MinnCAN outlines three goals for the 2012 legislative session using a hockey theme:

  • Prize first string teachers: Keep high-performing teachers in the game by rewarding effective teachers and ending seniority based layoffs.
  • Scouting Minnesota’s MVP’s (Most Valuable Principals): Ensure that every Minnesota principal is judged upon a rigorous and comprehensive evaluation grounded in the performance of their school, with a majority of a principal’s evaluation based on student learning and teacher performance.
  • Launch the achievement power play: Expand schools that are working, close those that aren’t and improve the ones in-between.

Community: All of the 15 MinnCAN’s listed funders are based in the Twin Cities and three of them are foundations. The Walton Family Foundation also provides general operating support, according to 50CAN, the national organization that launched MinnCAN.

Leadership: MinnCAN has an eclectic 13-member board with 10 members from the Twin Cities. The three Greater Minnesota members are former Governor Al Quie, former Congressman Tim Penny, and Vernae Hasbargen, former Executive Director of MREA. It does not appear that any of board members serve a role in a school district. Valley Varro is the new Executive Director of MinnCan. Also on staff are Nicholas Banovetz, Public Affairs Manager, and Christopher Orr, Government Relations Manager. MinnCAN’s original founding executive director, Vallay Varro, has joined the national 50CAN staff to develop similar 50CAN organizations in other states.


StudentsFirst identifies itself as “a movement to transform public education” and lists Minnesota as one of 17 states in which StudentsFirst is active.

Focus: StudentsFirst’s mission is “to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.” It believesAmerica’s schools are failing our kids and says the data is clear. While some people blame the kids, or simply want to throw more money at the problem, StudentsFirst says “real change requires a better system – one that puts students’ needs before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”

Goals: StudentsFirst has set the following three goals. Get the full Executive Summary.

1. Elevate the teaching profession by valuing teachers’ impact on students by:

  • Evaluating teachers based on evidence of student results rather than arbitrary judgments, and separating teacher evaluation from the collective bargaining process.
  • Evaluating principals on their ability to drive student outcomes, and to attract, retain, manage and develop excellent teachers
  • Supporting all paths that bring excellent teachers and instruction to students
  • Paying teachers substantially more for effectiveness
  • Making all staffing decisions based on teachers’ impact on students
  • Eliminating tenure, and making teaching a profession based on respect and performance

2. Empower parents with real choices and real information by:

  • Creating more high quality, publicly funded school choices
  • Empowering parents with clear and useful data
  • Empowering parents to trigger the turnaround of a failing school
  • Requiring parent consent for students placed with ineffective teachers

3.Shift spending taxpayers’ money to get better results for students by:

  • Promoting governance structures that prioritize accountability and put students’ interests first
  • Dispelling the myths about what works and only spending money on policies that advance student achievement
  • Creating pension and benefit programs responsibly

Community: The May 16 issue of Education Week reported that StudentsFirst received $500,000 from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in 2010, and $1 million from the Walton Family Foundation in 2011. No list of members or donors was available on the StudentsFirst website.

Leadership: Michelle Rhee is the CEO and Founder. She heads a 10-member national executive staffKathy Saltzman, a former state senator, is the Minnesota State Director.