Chairmanship puts weight on her shoulders

by T.W. Budig

ECM Capitol reporter

Stepping back into the Legislature after two years, Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, was appointed chairwoman of the House Education Reform Committee. Erickson is pictured using a visual aide to illustrate once recent session on the House floor. She is also pictured at a past press conference.

Rep. Sondra Erickson did not return to the State Capitol with idea of becoming a pivotal player in education reform.

“I have the weight of the world on my shoulders as chair of the (House) reform committee,” said Erickson, Republican from Princeton, with a smile recently.

A retired teacher, Erickson is back in St. Paul after winning back her House seat last election — the seven-term lawmaker was first elected in 1998.

Now Erickson presides over a committee grappling with such controversial proposals as alternative teacher licensure, teacher evaluation and preparation, proposed changes to tenure.

All of this in a budget climate in which Erickson, for one, does not foresee any sizable funding increases coming to education.

Reforms can be accomplished

But Erickson argues reforms can still be accomplished. he depicts education as a three-legged stool — the legs keeping it upright being teachers, parents, students.

“We cannot legislate parenting. But schools and school districts can make sure they have in place polices or practices that engage parents,” she said.

“We want parents to know we’re not leaving them out,” said Erickson.

Erickson intends to focus immediately on teacher preparation, emphasizing the importance of steeping teachers in content areas.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton

Day-to-day teaching skills to a great extent can be learned on the job, she argues.

Favors stringent candidate teacher assessments

Erickson believes there should be stringent candidate teacher assessments.

That should be a process by which a candidate teacher can learn at the start whether they’re in the right profession, Erickson explained.

But won’t an emphasis on evaluations — especially ones linked to student achievement — unfairly depict teachers in challenging classrooms to teachers practicing in ideal conditions?

Teachers can handle the scrutiny, Erickson explained.

“I think that most who go into teaching go into teaching because they want to make a change, and because they want to serve,” she said. “That is probably the highest characteristic of a teacher,” said Erickson.

“And so, I’m hoping we will eventually have a system in Minnesota where teachers can be mobile, and they can move in and out based on their excellence, on their effectiveness, from classrooms of the most difficult student to the easiest students,” said Erickson.

Changes to teacher tenure

One red button topic Erickson sees as playing out over time are proposed changes to teacher tenure.

“Tenure changes have to incremental. We can’t just go in there and blow up the tenure system,” said Erickson.

Erickson views Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union, as a potential partner in reform. “I think we share the same goals — we go at it a little differently,” she said. “And I think we can reach some compromises. We’re gong to have Gov. Dayton working with us. We’re gong to have a new commissioner working with us,” said Erickson.

“And I certainly hope Education Minnesota can also agree on some of the concessions I’m willing to make,” she said.

Erickson reported hearing from fellow Republicans that Education Minnesota lobbyists last session never bother to sit down in Republican lawmakers’ offices to talk.

That’s wrong, she said. “We have great ideas to share, too,” Erickson said. “I don’t want this to be some kind of little outside force that works against us,” she said of the union.

An Education Minnesota spokesman said their two Capitol lobbyist routinely discuss education with House Republicans though not necessarily sitting in their offices.

Idea of education reform not new

The idea of education reform isn’t new, Erickson said. It’s been talked about for years.

“But no one seemed to take is seriously when it cane to student achievement,” said Erickson.

Although Erickson is critical with the testing schedule of No Child Left Behind, she credits the federal program with making plain shortcomings in American education.

“And that’s what I think awakened all of us  to the fact, that ‘Oh my goodness, there really is this fact that not all students are achieving,’” she said, speaking of the learning gap impacting some children of color and those from poor families.

Minnesota has one of the sharpest learning gaps in the nation. “I mean we knew it, but now it was public,’ Erickson said. “That’s the good thing,” she said.

Still, Erickson smiles when asked about “reforms” of the past — schools without walls, Outcome Based Education.

Those weren’t reforms, Erickson quickly said. Those were trends.

Some lines should be drawn between the Legislature and classrooms, and should be respected, said Erickson.

Local decisions

For instance, Erickson views the ideas of year-round school, four-day school weeks, as decisions reserved for local communities. “And the Legislature, keep your nose out of it,” she counseled.

Erickson portrays her recent two-year absence from the Legislature as an hiatus, refreshing, a chance to gain new insights.

“Did I miss it?” she asked of serving in the Legislature. “I missed when I realized the people wanted me to back,” said Erickson.

View a video of sections of the Erickson interview at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBPvGhHsyfk

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