Minneapolis Teachers Rally as Reform Battle Lines Get Drawn

February 14, 2018

If education reform is a political game, and it is, then it looks like the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) is winning. Here’s why.

On February 13, the union held an informational picket line, meant to rally members and raise public awareness of the issues MFT says it is fighting for. That includes clean buildings, less testing, and smaller class sizes. 1,000 people showed up to walk the picket line in freezing, late afternoon temperatures. They hoisted signs and banged on drums while passing vehicles honked and waved in support. 

Whatever you think of union politics, it was an impressive show of force. Once the picket line ended, the action moved inside the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Davis Center headquarters, where a regularly scheduled school board meeting was getting underway. The spotless front entryway of the building, with its walls dotted in elementary school kids’ colorful art, was so packed with union supporters that elbow room was impossible to come by.

With boot-clad feet stamping the floor, a chant of “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union” took shape before teachers, kids, parents and community members marched through the school board room. The mood was unmistakably buoyant.

It comes amid contract negotiations between MFT and the Minneapolis schools. According to a Star Tribune article, the district would like to hold mediation sessions over typical business items such as wages and benefits. Across the table, however, the union, like its counterpart in St. Paul, is attempting to use its contract as a way to advocate for the “schools Minneapolis kids deserve.” Labor laws in the United States favor management on this one, with precedent given to restricting union negotiations to boilerplate contract issues. 

But there is a growing trend of labor groups embracing “social justice unionism,” where the contract becomes a way to reframe the failure narrative dogging public schools. In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, St. Paul, and now, Minneapolis, this movement has pushed back against the plutocrat supported assumption that schools and teachers are failing kids.

Reformers Rally Too

On February 7, almost one week before the MFT rally drew one thousand supporters, the local education reform outfit, Minnesota Comeback, held their own rally at Minneapolis’s Capri Theater. This was billed as a quarterly gathering for the group’s community members and was a much more sparsely attended, subdued affair than MFT’s more celebratory one.

It may be because the intended audience was much different. A handful of politicians, including St. Paul state legislator, Carlos Mariani and state auditor hopeful, Jon Tollefson, were there, along with a few people who identified themselves as charter school parents. Al Fan, director of Minnesota Comeback, started the gathering off by identifying his organization’s goals.

“We want to triple the number of students enrolled in proven schools by 2022,” Fan promised, before noting that this does not include “every kid.” This seems to imply that, although Minnesota Comeback is funded by some of Minnesota’s wealthiest individuals and foundations,  its official position is that some kids will simply be left behind. 

This is the root of the kind of market-based, “sector agnostic” approach to education reform that Minnesota Comeback represents, especially given its ties to the national, billionaire-funded group, Education Cities. Their “theory of change” is that schools fail kids, not a society grossly hamstrung by racial and economic inequality. Throwing philanthropic dollars around, as Minnesota Comeback does, is increasingly seen as justification for capitalism’s excesses and, many argue, does little to address the complex historic and current problems that hold some kids and schools back.

Rather than fighting for an increase in minimum wage for all, as both the St. Paul and Minneapolis teachers unions have done, for example, Minnesota Comeback talks about “schools as the unit of change,” where the lucky will land–through the wonders of school choice–in the right kind of life-altering spot. 

Nuance. We Need Nuance!

Shavar Jeffries

This is the perspective that Shavar Jeffries, a former candidate for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, brought to the February 7 Minnesota Comeback event. After Al Fan left the stage, and Carlos Mariani had a turn talking about the need for “nuance” in education policy, Jeffries stepped up to share his story. (If you want to know more about the complexities of Newark and education reform, read The Prize.)

It is a compelling one. Jeffries has overcome a lot, as a child of Newark’s South Ward. His mother was murdered when he was just ten, and his father was not part of his life. Thankfully, as he pointed out, his grandmother steered him towards the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, where he was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to a prestigious local private school. Once there, he soared, and eventually graduated from Columbia Law School. 

After returning to Newark and helping to set up a KIPP charter school, which Jeffries said his own kids now attend, he has gone on to become a partner in a law firm. He is also the current president of the once-prominent group, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). This group’s influence reached its zenith with the Obama administration, when Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, proved willing to embrace DFER’s Wall Street-funded goals of promoting school choice, blocking the power of teachers unions and otherwise carrying water for elite interests.

From a 2008 DFER press release:

So what should we make of Mr. Duncan? One promising clue comes from a group called Democrats for Education Reform, part of the growing voice for reform in the party. DFER is known to cheer Democrats brave enough to support charter schools and other methods of extending options to parents. Joe Williams, the group’s executive director, predicted that Mr. Duncan will help break the “ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative and experimental ideas.”

Former DFER director, Joe Williams, is now in charge of the Walton Education Coalition, a reform advocacy fund worth $1 billion. Under Williams, and now Jeffries, DFER has been particularly anxious to portray itself as purveyors of “progressive, bold education reform.” Jeffries said this work includes promoting both district and charter schools in places like Denver, and fighting against “bad actors” in the charter sector–a move that would seem essential today, given the growing stories about corruption and scandal in these publicly funded, privately run “schools of choice.”

Jeffries made many salient points about America’s racist past and present, saying we are “still dealing” with the idea that people of color are not as smart as white people. White supremacy is a problematic framework in education, Jeffries insisted, before picking up on a theme common in Minnesota Comeback’s promotional materials: schools today need to be “rigorous and relevant.”

Fragile Political Capital

The conversation took an interesting turn when Jeffries, who was later joined on stage by Mariani for a question and answer session, talked about how “fragile” political capital is right now for groups like DFER, especially, undoubtedly, in the accountability-free world of Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. (Jeffries has publicly distanced himself from DeVos and her zealous approach to education reform.)

Jeffries then waded into the “unions vs. reformers” squall by saying DFER bore no “categorical opposition to labor.” However, he noted, unions are part of crafting a “scary narrative,” by saying reform groups like DFER and Minnesota Comeback are just “corporate” and affiliated with hedge funds. Which, of course, they are. Both Minnesota Comeback and DFER, especially under Jeffries, have taken pains to call out white supremacy and its impact on public education, yet they are very quick to defend their ties to the purse strings of very wealthy, very elite, powerful people and institutions.

“What they do is, they try to demonize us,” Jeffries said of unions, drawing supportive claps from many in attendance. Mariani, who is also part of the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, answered Jeffries, saying, “We need to fight against fear tactics and keep the public informed.” 

“I’m a kid from the hood who got an opportunity,” Jeffries later said. “There is no one behind the curtain.”

It’s hard to square this, though, with Jeffries’ other insights. He repeated later that “white supremacy must be dismantled,” yet he said he “loves Teach for America”–a politically powerful reform outfit heavily funded, again, by billionaire investors. In a later conversation, Jeffries also said he supports standardized testing over “five million teachers doing their own thing,” which would seem to be at odds with his belief that schools need to celebrate and uphold marginalized students.

Later, Jeffries was called upon by state auditor candidate, Jon Tollefson, who has been endorsed by the supposedly progressive group, Our Revolution, to provide info on how to “blunt the ‘oh, they’re just corporate reformers'” message. (Tollefson is married to Josh Crosson of the local reform group, Ed Allies.)

Tollefson said a friend of his, Anthony Hernandez, is running for a seat in the legislature. Hernandez has been “attacked by the so-called left,” Tollefson insisted, for being a charter school teacher and member of (yet another billionaire-backed reform group), Educators for Excellence. All Hernandez is doing, Tollefson insisted, is “running to make sure we get good schools for all kids.”

Jeffries kicked his message into high gear then, telling the audience that “we gotta smack our opponents around if they won’t stop.” Get “validators,” he advised, to help spread the reform message. He then noted that DFER can help: “We have a whole political team that can provide support.” Yes, DFER does, as the Center for Media and Democracy noted in 2016:

At first glance, “Democrats for Education Reform” (DFER) may sound like a generic advocacy group, but a closer review of its financial filings and activities shows how it uses local branding to help throw the voice of huge Wall Street players and other corporate interests from out-of-state.

DFER is actually the more well known PAC arm of Education Reform Now, Inc. (ERN), a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, and Education Reform Now Advocacy, Inc. (ERNA), a 501(c)(4) social welfare group. Their acronym not only sounds like the word “earn,” but also it has the backing of some really huge earners.

DFER co-founder (and founder of the T2 Partners hedge fund) Whitney Tilson explained the hedge funders interest in education noting that “Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.

This is the kind of group Minnesota Comeback has aligned itself with, while taking great pains to present itself as acting only on behalf of the needs of under-served students. Get those kids–well, some of them, anyway–into a “proven” school, with teachers who believe enough to make them succeed, and things will work out. (Especially if these schools are beset with the latest education innovations, such as tech-driven “personalized learning”–the kind that venture capitalists love to invest in.) 

Or maybe, as the Minneapolis teachers union has insisted, the conversation should turn towards the kind of conditions kids today are living in, with a bottoming out of public support for their families and schools. Judging by the throngs of teachers and parents who walked the informational picket on February 13, their message might just be catching on. 

No hedge fund dollars, no union paycheck. Your generous support is greatly appreciated! And many thanks to those of you who have already donated.



Minneapolis Public Schools Stands By Administrator with Side School Choice Consulting Business

January 17, 2018

In 2017, according to Minneapolis Public Schools staff, the district’s General Counsel, Amy Moore, investigated whether or not district administrator Bryan Fleming’s consulting business constituted a conflict of interest, per MPS policy 3000.

The conclusion reached was that Fleming was not in violation of the district policy. He was therefore allowed to keep his job as Director of Enrollment Management within MPS and retain an interest in his business, Fleming Education Group. This business, as noted in a January 16 blog post, is dedicated to steering families (with means, it would appear) into the “right” school for their child, whether that is a Minneapolis public school or not. 

Fleming was hired by the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2016, reportedly during Michael Goar’s brief tenure as Interim superintendent. At that time, his private consulting practice had been in operation since 2015. A look at the Fleming Education Group’s website reveals a list of documents and services prospective clients can access, including a “School Choice Checklist.”

This checklist is frequently put to use during divorce proceedings, according to sources familiar with Fleming’s work. One client, whose spouse retained Fleming in 2016, shared documents with me yesterday regarding the work Fleming completed for them. (Because this case involves a minor, I will not include names.) The couple was going through a divorce then, which resulted in a dispute about where the couple’s child should attend school.

Fleming, per the documents shared with me, walked the parents through an extensive process of evaluating whether or not the child should remain in the Minneapolis Public Schools or be moved, as one parent wanted, to a well-known private school. The family resided in Minneapolis and, as mentioned, the minor in question was already attending a Minneapolis school. Fleming offered the parents a side-by-side comparison of the two schools (one private, one a Minneapolis public school) in question.

Although Fleming’s recommendation in this particular case was to keep the child in their Minneapolis school, his research revealed no particular preference for the Minneapolis Public Schools. When it came to class size and curriculum, for example, the private school being considered (The Blake School) came out ahead of Minneapolis for the following reasons:

Fleming is being paid, one assumes, by the Minneapolis Public Schools to promote the district and help sell its schools to the public. Can the Fleming Education Group also promote a highly selective school choice process, without conflict? Perhaps Fleming is no longer actively involved with this outfit; the website, however, still lists Bryan Fleming as the founder and principal. No other employee or partner name is provided. 

According to documents available on the Fleming Education Group website, this consulting gig is no small time affair when it comes to either cost or the evaluation process. Clients wishing to retain the Fleming Education Group must pay $1500 up front for services that will be billed at $185 per hour.  This is clearly a niche market, geared towards wealthy families who are seeking school placement advice, either because of a divorce or a recent move to the Twin Cities.

Whether or not this service should exist is not the question. The question is why someone who founded and maintains a service like this should also be employed, at taxpayer expense, as the enrollment manager for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Especially, of course, when the district is facing an ongoing loss of students and a resulting drop in per pupil funding (leaving the more vulnerable students behind to be educated and cared for with fewer resources).

And per pupil dollars matter. On the above-mentioned 2016 Fleming Education Group report, The Blake School’s far higher per pupil funding was highlighted as a reason to consider it over the Minneapolis Public Schools:

This strikes me as a transparent conflict of interest. 

As a note of contrast, a handful of teachers and parents spoke out at the last Minneapolis school board meeting, on January 9. They were there to talk about “what is missing” in their schools and classrooms, as part of a union-led organizing campaign. Bethune Elementary School kindergarten teacher, Greta Callahan, told board members that “what’s missing is a basic understanding of what poverty and trauma look like, and what children right here in our city are going through.” 

99 percent of Bethune’s students live in poverty and 93 percent are students of color, according to Minnesota Department of Education statistics. Callahan spoke at the board meeting about the kinds of trauma her students deal with every day, from “siblings dying to living in foster homes, shuffling between shelters…and so much more.” 

I wonder. Does the Fleming Education Group steer any prospective parents to Bethune?

Callahan told board members that her classroom is a “sacred space filled with freedom and joy for five-year olds.” Trust has been established, she indicated, thanks to the “trauma-informed” practices that Bethune staff have adopted. Callahan then said this trust had been recently violated when a district administrator visited Callahan’s classrooms and spoke with her students without first introducing herself or asking Callahan which students could be approached and which should not be (this is what trauma-informed best practices look like).

One girl broke down in sobs when the administrator finally left, having been alarmed and confused by a stranger approaching her. “It is not okay,” Callahan insisted, her voice thick with emotion, that “a basic understanding of trauma is absent and missing from our district counterparts.”

South High School English teacher, Corinth Matera, also spoke at the board meeting about “what’s missing” at her school. “Despite the list I’m going to give you,” Matera told board members, “there are beautiful, incredible and powerful things happening in our building every day, because of our amazing students and brilliant staff.”

But this powerful work takes a toll on students and staff, Matera insisted, before listing what the school “carries on without,” such as “a full-time chemical health counselor,” which South had until a couple of years ago, as well as “windows and light, the number of engineers we need to keep our building clean and safe, training in restorative justice for our whole staff, and sufficient language interpreters for parent conferences” so that all families can fully participate in their children’s education.

Another missing piece? “Class sizes that allow us to effectively teach students to write,” Matera noted, before finally asking school board members to support the union’s current contract proposal. 

On the Fleming Education Group (FEG) website, a look at the kind of thorough, thoughtful, “child-centered” evaluation clients receive is provided. Here’s a sample of the process:

FEG’s process is rooted in the philosophy of meeting children’s diverse learning needs and promoting their healthy cognitive and social development.  Underlying this philosophy is the guiding principle that children have a better chance to thrive in safe, stable, robust learning environments that are equipped to meet a child’s specific learning profile. Adhering to this ‘child-as-learner-first’ process ensures that school placements are successful….

Is this same care and concern also applied to the children who go to Bethune, South and every other Minneapolis public school site? 

“The freedom to teach what the teachers decide is important (not tied to state curricular, textbooks and testing mandates).”

–One of the benefits of choosing a private school, according to Fleming Education Group

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Minneapolis Public Schools Administrator Runs a Side School Choice Consulting Business

January 16, 2018

When it comes to declining student enrollment for the Minneapolis Public Schools, it looks like the fox may be guarding the hen house. 

Bryan Fleming

Bryan Fleming, who has served as Director of Enrollment Management for the Minneapolis schools since 2016, runs a side consulting business that offers “School-placement Advising for families and family law practitioners.” Fleming’s side gig bears his name–Fleming Education Group–but no mention of his role as a current employee of the Minneapolis Public Schools. His bio simply states that he is a “former educator and school administrator.” 

Fleming may be collecting an undoubtedly generous, taxpayer-funded salary from the Minneapolis schools, but that doesn’t appear to have made him a champion of public schools. Instead, the consulting company that bears his name offers this note for prospective clients:

Fleming Education Group helps clients manage their fears and anxiety about educational options, and strive for child-centered solutions in every instance. We know how to broaden a family’s school-choice lens in a productive, efficient way to achieve the outcomes that will maximize their child’s promise.

“Broadening a family’s school-choice lens” is an interesting position to take for someone employed by a pubic school district–particularly one that is struggling to stay afloat amid the endless proliferation of school choice schemes. But the Fleming Education Group is clearly targeted to families with choices, the kind that can easily walk away from a school they deem unworthy or unfit for their children. 

Need proof? Just read through the blog post currently up on the Fleming Education Group website. Called “Debunking ‘Private–Why a Private School?’,” the post is a declaration of love for exclusive private schools. The blog post, part of a series called “Thoughts by Bryan,” offers Fleming’s thoughts on the value of a private education–and the freedom these schools enjoy by “admitting only those students appropriate to the mission.”

Here are the first four paragraphs of the  Fleming Education Group’s blog:

Those of us with children in private schools have chosen our school for many important reasons, one of which may be that it is an independent, or “private,” school. Yet when family, friends and neighbors ask, “Why do you send your student to a private school?” many of us find it difficult to articulate the answer.

Our difficulty may stem, in part, from the fact that we chose our private school for many intangible reasons that are hard to put into words. And sometimes we might be concerned that our answer will trigger a debate about the merits of public versus private school.

At Fleming Education Group, our client families pose this question more often than not. I want to help make answering “why a private school?” in general, and “why Breck, SPA, Blake, Minnehaha Academy, International School or Providence Academy?” in particular easier for anyone exploring school-placement options.

Especially here in the Twin Cities where there are so many excellent, non-private school options (Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Orono, Wayzata and many more), it’s important to focus on understanding the value of independence, as this is truly one of the things that can make private-independent schools worth the investment.

This is jaw-dropping. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ own Director of Enrollment Management runs (according to his LinkedIn page) a side business built around steering families into private schools. The “many excellent, non-private school options” Fleming’s post mentions does not even include the Minneapolis Public Schools. 

Fleming is  a full-time employee of the Minneapolis schools. As I understand it, full-time employees of the district are not allowed to operate side consulting gigs that directly conflict their paid employment with the district. At the very least, the district has a “conflict of interest” policy.

This came to a head in 2016 when Associate Superintendent, Lucilla Davila, was placed on leave for her involvement in a business that provides after-school programming. Davila was reinstated in January, 2017 although she is now listed as being part of another side consulting business, Global Immersion Network Consultants (GINC), with a very similar-sounding, educational mission to that of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Multilingual Department.

Fleming was the Director of Admissions for the prestigious Blake School from 2000-2014. He then took a short turn as an employee of the Bush Foundation, a key, local philanthropic group that has been very supportive of market-based education reform efforts. In 2014, the Bush Foundation gave a $200,000 grant to the Education Transformation Initiative. This is very important to keep in mind here.

The Education Transformation Initiative became Minnesota Comeback, according to a 2016 press release from Minnesota Comeback:

Incubated by The Minneapolis Foundation as the Education Transformation Initiative, MN Comeback is an independent nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis.

Minnesota Comeback is a local group with ties to a national, billionaire-funded reform outfit called Education Cities. Education Cities’ mission, carried forward locally by Minnesota Comeback, is to spread school choice and facilitate the growth of charter schools, under the guise of a “sector neutral” preference for “High Quality Seats.” They want seats as opposed to schools  because “seats” open the door to investors (in education technology, for example) that traditional, union-staffed public schools might not.

The charter schools being given funding, PR and “growth opportunities” by Minnesota Comeback and their supporters need students from the Minneapolis Public Schools in order to survive and further weaken the district. (A district, weakened by design through chaos, reduced funding and poor management, for example, is a boon to charter school operators.)

Enter Bryan Fleming. As Director of Enrollment Management for the Minneapolis schools, he has key insight into what families want from the Minneapolis schools and what their reasons are for leaving the district. He appears to have a side business that promotes school choice and indicates a clear preference for the greener grass at fancy private schools while the Minneapolis Public Schools struggles with shrinking enrollment and the accompanying loss of funding.

If this isn’t a conflict of interest, then what is?

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For-Profit McNally Smith College Suddenly Shuts Down: A Student’s View

December 22, 2017

“If we mean anything more than our tuition to you, show us.”

This is Ana Hymson’s message for McNally Smith college officials. Hymson is, or was, one semester away from completing a bachelor’s degree in Music Production at McNally Smith. Just last week, the for-profit school announced it was shutting down, immediately. Staff and students were left scrambling for food (the cafeteria was suddenly closed), shelter (rumors were circulating that students will be locked out of dorms on Christmas Eve) and a paycheck (employees will not be paid this month for work already completed).

This is not a good holiday story, but it does reveal a lot about what it means to be “college and career ready” in today’s world. Ambitious kids, raised to believe that college degrees are their only way up and out, are increasingly being saddled with debt. Or worse–meaningless degrees. This is a problem of economics, marketing and false promises. (Other colleges have quickly stepped up to try to help McNally Smith students find a place to go, although they cannot, reportedly, promise that credits will transfer.)

For-profit colleges are dangerous, a fact McNally Smith’s president Harry Chalmiers acknowledged in a 2011 Op-Ed. McNally Smith was trying to become a nonprofit but couldn’t secure the funding to do so. The school was being dragged down by its students’ financial aid needs. Was it ethical to keep operating this fall? How will the founders of the school and its investors make out amidst the end-of-semester collapse of McNally Smith?

McNally Smith in more hopeful times

What happens to students burdened with debt for college credits they can’t put towards a degree? (A topic covered well in this brief podcast: What the 2016 Election Revealed About the Limits of “College for All.”)

The sudden closure of McNally Smith College of Music may leave students with few options for completing a degree because of the school’s weak accreditation.

Unlike public colleges and universities, which are regionally accredited, the St. Paul for-profit music school is nationally accredited. Transfer students historically have had little luck getting their new colleges to award credit for McNally Smith coursework.

–St. Paul Pioneer Press, “McNally Smith students might be stuck with credits that don’t transfer.” December 15, 2017

Ana Hymson is not sure what she will do next. She says she is an “outlier,” because she can’t drive and has relied on living just steps away from McNally Smith. She credits the school’s faculty and staff with “doing a great job” of helping students like her find ways to finish their degrees or otherwise move forward. So far, she says, she has not received a response to her email, which was addressed to the school’s founders, Jack McNally and Doug Smith.

Here is the text of her email:


I am sure you have dozens of emails like this one in your inbox right now, but I am here to add another, regardless, in hopes that you will gain more insight into what exactly your decision has done.

I moved to Minnesota from Florida in 2015, fresh out of high school, to pursue an education at McNally Smith. I double majored in Music Production (Bachelor’s program, with a minor in Music Business) and Live Sound. I packed 7 semesters, almost 4 years of work (if not more, considering my enrollment in more than one program), into the past 2 years. I also held 2 student worker positions at the school, as a receptionist and as part of the live sound department.

I was one semester away from graduating with both degrees when I received the news on that the school was closing.

As of writing this, I am completely unsure if I will ever be able to finish my degrees anywhere, let alone at an institution that would not force me to uproot the entire life I have built here. My life has been turned on its head by one email. I have medical bills, rent, health insurance, and a long, long list of other things to pay for, and an even longer list of uncertainties to sort through in order to determine the course of the rest of my life. Yet still, I am in a better situation than many of my peers. None of us were given the courtesy of time to plan for this, the assurance that anyone thought about our futures before this decision was made, or the immediate provision of resources that would make this announcement anything more than a very expensive slap in the face.

The other student workers, the faculty, and the staff were tricked into working our jobs for the past 2 weeks for free. There is no other way in which that can or should be phrased. Some of us believe that we may actually receive compensation down the line, but more of us do not. Still, faculty, staff, and student workers have been on campus, taking and administering final exams, completing projects, making music.

More importantly, though, we have spent the past days sharing our resources, offering up our open couches to the students who will be homeless by the end of next week, bringing food and packing supplies to the residence hall students who relied on meal plans from a cafe that can no longer operate to eat their next meals, attempting to salvage some of our academic resources that we were assured lifelong access to before they are shut down for good. We are scrambling to build a structure that should have been built for us.

And we have not heard a word from either of you. The fact that Harry (Chalmiers) was made to be the mouthpiece for this has subjected him to judgement he does not deserve, considering everything he has done for us and how often he has shown us that he cares about us all.

The fact that I am unsure whether I will ever get a response to this email, or whether it will even be read in the first place, is upsetting. But if I am being heard, I want to know what you plan to do to help the students, staff, and faculty who have proudly worn your names on our shirts, and who have trusted you to do right by us. We all deserved to get this news earlier, but we have to settle for the answers and guidance we can get now, and we are hoping that they will come soon, even though they will come to us through hours upon hours of unpaid work done by our friends. If we mean anything more than our tuition to you, show us.

Ana Hymson

Best wishes to all McNally Smith students and staff as they navigate this sudden loss. Here’s hoping that a thorough investigation of the school’s demise will be done quickly.

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Opting Out of Standardized Tests? It’s Still Legal in Minnesota

December 14, 2017

The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently posted an eye-opening interview with Professor Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. His main point: “excessive high-stakes testing undermines the goals of instruction and meaningful learning.”

From Koretz’s point of view, today’s K-12 education system has become overrun by a “naive” devotion to standardized testing. He points out the ripple effects of this devotion, such as the impulse to “game” the system and double down on “boring test prep” in order to toe the testing line. Koretz’s insights will ring familiar to many who have been sounding this same alarm for years.

Koretz also discussed what parents or teachers can do when they realize—as many have—that “testing often degrades instruction rather than improving it.” He advised a “ground level” approach to change by recommending that concerned parents approach their child’s classroom teacher or administrator to ask what “wiggle room” the school may have for getting around onerous federal, state or local testing policies. But nowhere in the interview does Koretz mention that parents can opt their children out of any and all standardized testing, as well as test prep.

Photo: US News and World Report

This may be because, as states get ready to implement the new federal education policy known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), opt outs are again becoming a contentious and federally frowned upon issue—even though the ESSA was supposed to return policy making decisions to local departments of education. (The ESSA required every state to submit an accountability plan; those plans are now in the process of being either approved or denied by the federal education department.) 

Instead, the ESSA brings more pressure on parents, students, teachers and state legislators to bend to high-stakes standardized testing—despite the cost. Minnesota offers a clear example of this. As the 2017-2018 school year got underway, many teachers and parents were surprised to discover a newly revised “Parent Refusal” form provided by the Minnesota Department of Education. This form is intended to guide opt outs across the state, which have risen dramatically in some districts, including Minneapolis.

The initial pages provide boilerplate information for parents about federally required testing and its ties to Minnesota’s notoriously rigorous and independent academic standards. (Minnesota is only one of a handful of states, for example, that require all high school students to take Algebra 2 in order to graduate.) But on the last page of the form, a paragraph all in bold type pulls out every scare tactic in the book:

“I understand that by signing this form, my student will receive a score of ‘not proficient’ and waives the opportunity to receive a college-ready score that could save him/her time and money by not having to take remedial, non-credit courses at a Minnesota State college or university.”

Any parents still resisting are then served a final dose of guilt. Those who choose to opt out, the form warns, may deprive not only themselves but their whole school district of “valuable information” that could cause a potential drag on any local or state attempts to “equitably distribute resources.”

According to a Minnesota Department of Education employee, who was not authorized to speak publicly about this, the form was updated in 2017 for two main reasons. First, during the 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers on the Education Policy Committee passed a law requiring the department to clearly spell out the “consequences” of opting out of testing. Second, the form was amended in order to encourage more compliance with the ESSA law. The ESSA, like its much-derided predecessor, the No Child Left Behind law, requires that states test “at least 95 percent of all eligible students.”

In late 2015, the federal government, in promoting the ESSA, sent a letter to states urging them to “sanction” local schools or education departments that fall below this 95 percent threshold. To force compliance with standardized testing (and test prep, as Koretz points out), federal officials recommended that states threaten to withhold funding, for example, or label students who opt out as “non-proficient,” as the Minnesota form promises to do.

Labeling students as non-proficient has not gone over well with the public, according to the Minnesota department of education employee I spoke with. “People have expressed concern” over the wording on the Parent Refusal Form, the staffer admitted. The employee clearly conceded, however, that—no matter the implied consequences—parents and students still have the right to opt out of the testing.

What might be hardest to opt out of, though, is the nation’s long-standing insistence on using standardized test scores as a gatekeeper to higher education. In an October letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, University of Minnesota library employee Robert Katz wrote that, last year, 670 African-American students applied to the university’s highly regarded business school, but that “the U rejected 94 percent of them.” Why were so many African-Americans rejected? Katz argues that it is due in large part to the “administration’s use of standardized test scores.” The university, he says, has a new policy that requires incoming freshman to have an ACT score of 28—a score he says is “achieved by only 10 percent of test-takers nationwide.”

Black students tend to score lower on the ACT than their white and Asian-American peers, Katz writes, but not because they are less intelligent or capable. The ACT is a “flawed test,” he claims, and does not accurately reflect merit, intelligence, or a student’s likely college GPA. Using the university’s own data, Katz points out that students who come in with a 28 on the ACT tend to achieve first-year GPAs in the same range (B+ to A-) as those who come in with lower ACT scores.

The University of Minnesota’s new call for higher ACT scores means “African-American students are being turned away at a higher rate than 10 years ago,” Katz concludes. Rather than creating steps toward more equitable forms of assessment, federal education policy encourages states like Minnesota to punish those in K-12 and higher education who might want to resist the dominance of high-stakes standardized testing.  


A parent who read this blog post on Facebook says that she had previously reached out to the Minnesota Department of Education, complaining about the “not proficient” language on the state’s Parent Refusal Form. Here is the response she received from an unidentified staffer:

The woman at MDE who replied to me via e-mail said this, “For a student who does not participate, they will receive an Individual Student Report that says, ‘NA’ for Not Attempted. For accountability purposes, students who do not participate are included in a district’s total testing population, and since they did not participate, they cannot be included in the count of students who demonstrated proficiency on the assessment.” She also told me the form had been updated on approximately November 27. Here is the new language on the form, “I understand that by signing this form, my student will be counted as “not proficient” for the purpose of school and district accountability…”

This seems to indicate that individual students will no longer be labeled “not proficient” by the state, but that anyone who opts out of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments will still be lumped into that category. Some enterprising lawyer should look into whether or not it is legal to label students who do not take a test–which is their right–as “not proficient.”

*This post originally appeared on The Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

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Minneapolis Teachers Union Pushes for Smaller Classes, Less Testing–and $15 Minimum Wage

November 22, 2017

Last night, the best seat in town for education advocates was a folding chair inside the squat, workaday headquarters of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. It’s negotiation season for the union, and the stakes are high.

On one side of the table sat a handful of Minneapolis Public School administrators, including Chief Human Resources Officer Maggie Sullivan and Michael Thomas, the district’s second in command behind Superintendent Ed Graff. Sullivan, Thomas and the other MPS admin remained silent during the negotiations. Instead, labor and employment lawyer Kevin Rupp did the talking.

The district reps might have felt outnumbered. In a sharp departure from past union-district negotiations, MFT members packed the florescent-lit room with a sea of union blue t-shirts, alongside a smattering of community observers. Pro-labor posters, constructed at a recent “Art Build for Public Education” event, lined the yellow walls of the negotiations room, showing that MFT, under new leader Michelle Wiese, is working to embrace social justice unionism

Economic hard times pose a sustained threat to hopes for improvement in the social welfare. Savage inequalities in the public education available to children of different racial and class backgrounds reflect growing social and economic polarization and squander the potential of our youth. Gaps between schools and the communities they serve are widening. The price of continued decay in public education and social well-being will be paid in reduced prospects for a democratic future.

–Rethinking Schools: “Social Justice Unionism,” Fall 1994

Negotiations–always a tense display of political theater–have become strained, thanks to the school district’s recent request for mediation. Moving to mediation means the public will be shut out of future sessions, although the district has agreed to meet publicly through 2017 (negotiations will be held on December 5 and 19 at MFT headquarters in northeast Minneapolis).

Requests for mediation are not new. In 2013, it was MFT that asked to close negotiations to the public, under former longtime president Lynn Nordgren’s leadership. This sparked a protest by education reform outfits such as Students for Education Reform and their allies from the now-dormant Put Kids First group.

It may have been easier back then to declare the union an old school, obstructionist mess, although that narrative has always been driven in large part by the anti-labor forces attempting to decimate workers’ rights across the United States. CNN Money, of all places, recently took a look at what Wisconsin teachers are facing in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s Koch and ALEC-fed actions.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not just about teacher pay and benefits; the destruction of unions in Wisconsin is pushing teachers and professors out of the state, and diminishing prospects for students. This example is worth keeping in mind amid ongoing calls to bring more people of color into teaching. What kind of jobs will they be offered?

At MFT last night, the union and district gnashed teeth over several union proposals. One striking call, led by Andersen United Community School teacher, Kristen Melby, was for clean schools. Fifteen years ago, Melby said, the Minneapolis schools had five hundred building engineers; today, there are less than two hundred and fifty. There are fewer students now, too, but protests in recent years have focused on the lack of cleanliness and care at MPS sites like Andersen.

Further MFT proposals dealt with special education caseloads and paid time off for teachers who must fill out onerous piles of paperwork associated with providing special education services. The district took a break midway through the negotiations, to confer, caucus and prepare their rebuttals. The district then responded to previous union proposals, most notably around class size and standardized testing.

Speaking for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Rupp said the district would refuse to negotiate around either of these issues. The union had previously proposed that the district mandate only the minimum amount of testing required by the state, arguing that any additional standardized testing pushed on the schools is costly–in terms of technology, labor, and lost hours of teaching and learning. (Schools often have to close their computer labs for weeks or months at a time, for example, to accommodate testing demands, and they have to pay someone to act as testing coordinator.)

In explaining MPS’s refusal to discuss testing, Rupp cited Minnesota’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act which he said puts questions of “educational policy within the School District’s sole authority.” Rupp also said that this law “protects democratic representational government,” by allowing elected school boards to make policy decisions. 

District administrators ponder MFT proposals

This struck me as a curious argument, since the school board is often criticized for being too involved in district operations. Some board members, past and current, have also repeatedly maintained that their only role is to hold the Superintendent–the board’s one employee–responsible for his or her own policy and hiring decisions. The board is not supposed to make policy, right?

Allowing teachers a greater say in what happens in the classroom, including how students are assessed, is an oft-repeated goal of both social justice unionism and education reform groups, who often insist that top-down management of school districts is a big problem. Also, as union leaders pointed out last night, MPS has been toeing the testing line since No Child Left Behind, yet little, if anything, has changed in terms of student outcomes (according to standardized test scores).

Is it time to “rethink assessment”? If so, who should lead this work? Teachers or administrators? School board members? 

The district also refused to discuss class size, claiming not only that the district is solely in charge of this, but that negotiating smaller class sizes would cost MPS upwards of $37 million per year. Impossible, Rudd claimed, in light of the $33 million budget shortfall MPS is wrestling with.

The dire financial straits facing MPS are real, and Graff and the school board have publicly addressed them. According to the November 14 school board meeting, raising class sizes by one student per classroom across the district, while also bringing the smaller classes at high priority schools up to district averages, is on the table. This is heartbreaking, especially in a wealthy state like Minnesota.

The district may not be willing or able to move on topics like class size and testing right now, although there are legitimate questions about who will most likely bear the brunt of the upcoming budget squeeze (a squeeze brought about, in part, by previous district admin and their expensive reform plans). Still, the sight of one hundred or more teachers, social workers, school librarians and support staff joining together to push for smaller class sizes, less standardized testing and more time to devote to their students is a hopeful one.

To be fair, the November school board meeting also offered many intriguing clues about MPS leadership. It is to be expected that the district and union would be at loggerheads during negotiations, but, in watching video coverage of the November meeting, I see signs of progress from within MPS.

FIrst, uncomfortable and damaging budget realities are being openly discussed in new ways. The Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, must pay the special education costs for students who attend charter or private schools outside of the district. They must pay these costs but retain zero control over the quality or level of service the students receive, thanks to state law.

Also, the Minneapolis Public Schools faces millions in cross-subsidy costs for the special education and English Language services it must provide (and should provide, of course). This means that, although the state requires the district to provide such services, it does not provide enough funding to cover the cost. Therefore, MPS has to take money–to the tune of $56 million for special education alone, in 2016-2017–from each student’s per pupil funds to pay for the services they are required by law to provide.

While the general fund is being asked to pick up a greater and greater share of non-general-fund expenditures, the general fund itself has lost considerable ground to inflation. If the base education funding formula had simply kept pace with inflation since 2003, it would be over $600 per pupil higher today.

2016 Star Tribune editorial by Rebecca Gagnon, John Vento and Bruce Richardson of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts

Charter and private schools, as I said, can bill their special education costs back to the district. Charter schools only pay ten percent of the cost themselves. This is a problem the legislature needs to address–quickly, especially as the Minneapolis schools face increasing competition from charter schools that promise better outcomes for students but perhaps do not pay their share of costs for these “better outcomes.” 

The union-district negotiations will move behind closed doors in January 2018. That’s a shame, because the conversations embedded within them are worth paying attention to. The union is pushing for many things, including a living wage for all district employees, since MPS remains exempt from the move to a citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour. These efforts will hopefully go a long way towards shifting the narrative around public education from failure to solutions.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

–Rachel Cohen, “Teacher Unions are Bargaining for the Common Good.” American Prospect, June 2016

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Minneapolis’s Segregated Charter Schools Score a Windfall

October 9, 2017

On September 28, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it would give a handful of states, including Minnesota, an “additional $253 million in grants to expand charter schools,” in order to spur on school choice–an education reform strategy long embraced by Democrats, Republicans and wealthy financiers. 


In the announcement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos referenced Minnesota, where the nation’s first charter school was authorized in 1991. With this new influx of federal money, Minnesota’s burgeoning school choice market will receive a $23 million dollar shot in the arm. The bulk of this taxpayer-generated cash will go to the Minnesota Department of Education, while another $1 million will go directly to Minneapolis’s Hiawatha Academies charter school chain.

Such announcements are often accompanied by cheerful talk of innovation and choice. The new federal funding is all about “seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them,” according to DeVos. But this new funding will also support Minnesota’s increasingly segregated public and charter school landscape, as well as an exodus of money and students from union-staffed districts. (Charter school teachers and staff are mostly non-unionized, in Minnesota and beyond.)

Segregated Schools Get a Boost 

Hiawatha Academies is a perfect example of this. The charter school chain serves a population of students that is almost exclusively Latino. Public education records show, for example, that ninety-three percent of HIawatha Academies’ Morris Park students are Latino. The neighborhood it sits in, however, is seventy-seven percent white

Overall, Hiawatha Academies’ test scoresprized by reformers as the measure of school success–have dropped significantly in recent years. 

Hiawatha Academies has several other schools in the southern half of Minneapolis and is slated to open a big, brand-new high school in 2018. This school, Hiawatha Collegiate High School, currently serves 105 students in a former Minneapolis public school site. Eighty-three percent of the students are Latino; again, this is an aberration when the neighborhood’s demographics are considered. Recently, Minneapolis’s Planning Commission approved Hiawatha’s plans to expand the high school, with a target enrollment of over 700 students.

This is less about innovation and more about grabbing market share from the Minneapolis Public Schools. Hiawatha Academiesexpansion  plan makes this clear: “Our goal is that by 2024, more than 2,000 scholars – 5 percent of all Minneapolis school children – will attend a Hiawatha Academies school.” The path to expansion has been paved through unnaturally segregated schools and loads of outside money–including extensive financial support from the WalMart fueled Walton Family Foundation–and now, an injection of $1 million from the federal Department of Education.

Juicy Incentive Packages Lure Funders

Hiawatha Academies’ new high school will also be funded by private investors (including several corporations) who will benefit from a New Market Tax Credit. This tax credit, started in the Clinton administration and intended to boost development in “underserved” areas, has provided a “gravy train to fat city” for charter school investors, as Forbes magazine writer Addison Wiggin put it in a 2013 article. Wiggin describes the charter school market as “booming,” thanks to investments from “bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors” eager to cash in on the New Market Tax Credit.

In 2010, this tax credit was explored in-depth by journalist Juan Gonzalez. Writing for the New York Daily News, Gonzalez found that investing in new charter schools has become incredibly lucrative. Not only do investors stand to gain a tax credit worth up to 39 percent after seven years, thanks to the New Market program, but they can also earn interest on the money they’ve invested, since it is done in the form of a loan. Gonzalez noted that the New Market Tax Credit can also be tacked onto other “federal tax credits, like historic preservation or job creation….” Hiawatha’s new Collegiate High School will be located in a historic former bottling plant in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood.

All told, this adds up to a very juicy incentive package when it comes to the proliferation of charter schools in urban areas. Investors in HIawatha Academies’ new high school have put up $5 million in funding through the New Market Tax Credit program. In order to rake in enough per pupil funds to make this project sustainable over time, the school will need to rapidly grow its enrollment to the projected capacity of nearly 800 students. 

Push for Privatization

The corporate and government-sponsored expansion of charter schools is less about student success and more about pushing privatized, market forces onto public institutions. A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article documented the drain charter schools are imposing on the city’s increasingly cash-strapped and underfunded public school district. In “Students in Flight,” reporters Beena Raghavendran and MaryJo Webster sized up the situation this way: “Minneapolis Public Schools is the biggest loser in Minnesota’s robust school-choice environment, surrendering more kids to charter schools and other public school options than any other district.”

Pitting privately managed, publicly (and privately) funded charter schools against public school districts creates a market of winners and losers–especially when the charter schools are allowed to serve niche populations. There is further evidence of this on the state education department’s website. There, readers will find a list of charter schools deemed “high quality  and worthy of replication. Included on this list are highly segregated schools like Twin Cities International Elementary School.

Publicly available data shows that this “international” school, located in Minneapolis, has a student population that is 100 percent Black/African-American (18 percent of Minneapolis’s overall population is identified as Black, according to recent census data). From the school’s website, it seems clear that it serves Minneapolis’s large Somali community, with only two percent of its students requiring special education services. That is far less than the special education rate of 15 percent within the Minneapolis Public Schools. (Special education remains an expensive, underfunded proposition for districts, like Minneapolis, that serve a bigger percentage of students with higher needs.)

School Choice Leads to Resegregation

Instead of remedying the historic and ongoing problem of racially and economically isolated neighborhoods and public schools, federal and local support for charter schools is exacerbating the situation. Research–like that of New York Times education reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells us that segregated schools often remain separate and unequal for students of color. In the Twin Cities, an increase in segregated schools has also meant white students are being educated in public and charter schools with abnormally high percentages of white, wealthier students. Nevertheless, several of these schools–including Twin Cities German Immersion and Nova Classical Academy–are lauded on the state department of education’s website for being “high quality” charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are struggling to keep up–especially in a time when public funding for education has dwindled significantly in Minnesota. Some might call this disaster capitalism, with public entities being weakened over time, in order to create an opportunity to reconstruct the education landscape in favor of privatized, niche (segregated) charter schools that sometimes attract wealthy investors, but often fail to provide a better education for marginalized students.

In an op-ed response to the Star Tribune’s portrayal of Minneapolis as the “biggest loser” in the school choice market, University of Minnesota education professor Nicola Alexander offered a cautionary message. While expressing sympathy for parents and students who don’t want to be left “feeling stuck in schools that do not serve their needs,” Alexander pokes a hole in the idea that school choice schemes are somehow without consequence.

The proliferation of charter schools in urban areas provides an end run around “broader social factors, like poverty, that ailed many of these communities,” Alexander writes. Further, instead of tackling the whole, state and federal policy has fallen “firmly on the side of mechanisms that equated choice with empowerment and school systems with markets.” But, of course, she notes, “markets are not always fair.”

This is not a concept that has bothered Betsy DeVos, either in her home state of Michigan, where she pushed for accountability-free charter schools, or in her new role as federal education secretary. One of the Trump administration’s first action items for the Department of Education, under DeVos, was to cancel an Obama-era program designed to promote school integration. With this latest announcement of more funding for charter schools, states like Minnesota are being pushed further into a market-based, partially privatized education system.

A condensed version of this post was originally published on the Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

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Minneapolis Protester to School Board Members: “You are Trash”

August 9, 2017

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.

The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students. 

Image result for ed graff

Ed Graff

Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?). 

Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.

“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers. 

In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis. 

This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs. 

As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.

“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon. 

With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car. 

Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.

This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.

At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”

If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):

I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate. 

Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.

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Minneapolis Southwest High School Investigation Leads to Administrative Shake Up

August 2, 2017

“We look forward to appointing these new assistant principals as quickly as possible.”

With that, Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, Cecillia Saddler, confirmed rumors swirling through the district’s Southwest High School community: when school starts up again in August, the school will be without three of its four administrators. In an email sent to parents and staff on August 1, Saddler informed them that assistant principals Sue Mortensen and Brian Nutter are “leaving the Southwest community.” 

This notice comes on the heels of the surprise July 28 announcement that Southwest’s longtime (and high profile) principal, Bill Smith, is retiring–a year earlier than most people expected. Mortensen, according to Saddler’s email, is also retiring while Nutter–a young, Roosevelt High School graduate–has been moved to an administrative role in the district’s Davis Center headquarters. 

Bill Smith in his Southwest office

This news sent shock waves through the community, leaving parents and staff to wonder what has caused all three of these administrators to suddenly exit the school. Only Tara Fitzgerald, an assistant principal new to both Southwest and the administrative tasks of a large high school, will be returning to the school this fall. Saddler’s email gives no indication what, if anything, has caused Smith and Mortensen to suddenly retire, and Nutter to be moved elsewhere.

It is known, however, that an internal investigation has taken place at the school, although MPS officials have yet to share this information with the community. It is believed that the investigation began in 2015, before current superintendent, Ed Graff, took the helm. The fallout from the investigation appears to have included this last-minute administrative shake up at Southwest, a high school that consistently ranks high for both academics and community support.

On July 31, Southwest staff and parents gathered for an impromptu meeting to discuss the loss of the school’s administrative team. Among the concerns outlined by supporters was the level of upheaval this is expected to cause for the school and its students, as the August 28 start date rises on the calendar. Letting go of Smith and Mortensen seemed inevitable for those gathered, yet a desire to bring Nutter back to the school was expressed. He had been given the key tasks of managing both the school’s budget (which is buoyed by a private school-like foundation, in the face of shrinking district dollars) and schedules. And he has been instrumental, some said, in building relationships with students.

The fact that Nutter was responsible for these fundamental aspects of running a large high school led many to believe that he was being tapped to take over for Smith upon his eventual retirement. Why, then, is he being moved from the school?

Anyone looking for answers in Saddler’s email will be left wanting. Also, parents and staff seeking protection from district decision-making via the school’s “autonomous,” Community Partnership School status have thus far been disappointed. One parent assumed that the school, thanks to its carefully crafted, independent “by-laws,” would be able to now choose its own administrative team.

Not so fast, she was told. Those Community Partnership School by-laws are not valid unless they’ve been ratified by the district, and they haven’t. The Community Partnership School ballyhoo appears to have been a flash in the pan, anyway, as many expected. It was a project of previous interim Superintendent Michael Goar and former teachers union boss, Lynn Nordgren. Both are gone, and the “self-governed” Community Partnership School agreement they put in place just a few years ago–selling it as the solution to the achievement gap, of course–is on its way out. (SeeAll That Glitters: Top Down Change in MPS.“)

Saddler’s email does make it clear, however, that the community will be invited to help select replacement assistant principals in the next few weeks, although any final hiring decisions will remain in Superintendent Graff’s hands. Whether or not the reappointment of Brian Nutter is possible remains to be seen.

Southwest consistently ranks as one of Minnesota’s most successful high schools, based on its relatively high four-year graduation rates (hovering at or above the 80 percent mark for most student groups), its strong IB program and the amount of high level course offerings available. The school is whiter and wealthier than any other Minneapolis public high school (just over fifty percent of students are white), and sits in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. Still, it draws students from across the city and remains a school of choice for many–as evidenced by the looming, suburban style expansion the school recently underwent. (A contentious expansion at that!)

Smith is known throughout the district for being a non-stop booster of the school and is famous for showing up at countless events dressed in the school’s purple and white colors. He has an inside baseball reputation for being a tough administrator who has successfully stood between the district and the school for years (my 2014 interview with him regarding Focused Instruction, another short-lived district initiative, was telling). 

The IB approach tends to be more application, or outcome focused, where Focused Instruction is more of a skill set that promotes a right or wrong answer. Both methods are standards-based, but those of us who practice IB believe it is a holistic approach to living and learning. IB practitioners are interested in self-mindedness and collaboration.

–Bill Smith on his preference for the IB method

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Too Overworked to Attend Your Kid’s Conference? Don’t Worry! We Can “Navigate” That

June 26, 2017

On June 27, three different parent and community education organizing events will take place in Minneapolis, offering a seeming embarrassment of riches for those tracking education reform in this city. What to expect? Here’s a look at what’s going down in Minneapolis tomorrow afternoon and evening.

Too strapped to attend a parent-teacher conference? Don’t worry! Minnesota Comeback and EdNavigator have got you covered.

Minnesota Comeback, a local anchor in the billionaire-funded, Tennessee-based Education Cities network, is hosting a Coalition Convening at 4:30 p.m. on June 27, and parents are invited to attend. The guest of honor will be the New Orleans group, EdNavigator–a puzzling outlet that appears to offer to attend parent-teacher conferences on behalf of New Orleans hotel workers (largely non-unionized) that can’t afford to take time off work to do so. 

This group probably won’t get a mention during EdNavigator’s presentation.

At least that’s the impression I have gotten from a PR report on EdNavigator’s work, published by the Carnegie Reporter (a newsletter of sorts dedicated to highlighting the Carnegie Foundation’s efforts.) The Carnegie Foundation is one of EdNavigator’s sponsors, so, naturally, the report is a positive one, full of stories of parents too tired or overwhelmed to independently advocate for their children in New Orleans’ choice-only edu-landscape.

To combat this problem (but not remedy the poor, non-unionized working conditions, apparently), some area hotels have commissioned EdNavigator to provide “Navigators” for their employees. Parents agree to give full access to their child’s school records to EdNavigator, which in turn can attend school conferences on the parent’s behalf, and otherwise act as a coach around parenting and education issues. Also, the EdNavigators can step in when schools (almost all charter, in New Orleans) may have “good intentions” but simply might not understand the “‘ins and outs, such as what it’s like for a mother who is working two jobs.”

The schools are cast as the bad guys in the EdNavigator narrative. They do awful things such as “demand parents drop everything and show up,” or force parents to “flip their lids” in order to get attention. This undoubtedly hits a nerve, as high quality, consistent and equitable parent and community engagement is lacking for many school districts. But employers in this EdNavigator story seem to bear no responsibility for the economic conditions of these too-overwhelmed-to-advocate parents. Gotta work two or three jobs to make it? Don’t worry! We’ll pay EdNavigator to go to school conferences for you! 

Why not just pay employees a living wage so that they can fully participate in their own kids’ lives? Because EdNavigator, like the education “news” outlets that cover it glowingly, has received funding from billionaire philanthropists–such as the Walton Family Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–with an interest towards boosting “up by the boot strap” schemes rather than pro-public, collective solutions. (Minnesota Comeback also receives funding from the Walton Family Fund, among other wealthy investors.)

EdNavigator’s message is also about helping parents master choice-scattered school landscapes. This offers a hint at the direction Minnesota Comeback is hoping to go in, thanks to their stated goal of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” in Minneapolis.” Those “seats” can occur anywhere–public, private or charter. There is little attachment to community or a public school district, but more room for EdNavigator-type outlets that make money by advising individual parents on how and when to hop schools, when necessary, or otherwise–so the PR goes–get the best for their kid. 

The “best” never seems to include comprehensive economic reform–just a narrow focus on school choice and “parent engagement,” even if that engagement has to be outsourced because the parents are too strapped to do it themselves.

According to the Carnegie Reporter’s coverage of EdNavigator’s work, the group is looking to expand their work (Minneapolis?!): 

At this point, EdNavigator does not yet have enough employers on board to make empowering of parents happen throughout the city of New Orleans. It has, however, been expanding and is looking to launch the service to a second city later this year.

Q: How do you expand your business (er, nonprofit) before you are truly successful?

A: When you have a model that business and wealthy education reformers can support without worrying about their bottom line (hint: when you are not a unionized public school district). A quick glance at the brains behind EdNavigator reveal the usual plutocrat-propped education reform outlets, such as Teach for America, The New Teacher Project and KIPP (a charter school chain run by Teach for America affiliates). 

But don’t take my word for it. Minnesota Comeback is inviting interested parties to sign up and attend their Convening. Here are the details:

  • WHAT: Tuesday, June 27, 4:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. (check in and food served at 4:30; program at 5 p.m.)
  • WHERE: University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) 2001 Plymouth Ave., N., Minneapolis 55411
  • R.S.V.P. here (the event is free)

Choice Navigators Not Your Thing? Attend ISAIAH’s monthly meeting for Minneapolis Public Schools parents

In the absence of other well-coordinated, grassroots, authentically local organizing efforts for Minneapolis parents, ISAIAH has stepped in. ISAIAH is a Minnesota-based coalition of multi-faith religious leaders, focused on advocating for and with marginalized communities. Truly, ISAIAH has been doing a good job of showing up at the Minnesota state capitol to be a voice and a presence for a wide range of racial and social justice issues, including pressuring the Minnesota legislature to put excess resources back into local communities–and not into the pockets of the wealthy via tax cuts.

ISAIAH has also been quietly hosting education advocacy meetings and listening sessions for Minneapolis parents. On June 27, the group will meet at 6:30 p.m. at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church (2600 E 38th St).  According to an email notice of the meeting, sent out by ISAIAH member Greg King, the group will “discuss our recent visit with Eric Moore, Chief of the MPS Office of Accountability, Innovation and Research, and discuss next steps with engaging with the district to further reduce suspensions.”

Although not intended as a representative for all Minneapolis parents, ISAIAH does bring name recognition and a well-rounded approach to education advocacy to the table, thanks to their ongoing work on economic and other issues. 

Minneapolis Public Schools Steps Up on SROs

As outside reform interests continue to put pressure on traditional public school districts–even arguing that districts must willingly give up “under-enrolled” buildings to real estate-starved charter school networks–the Minneapolis Public Schools seems to be working on better communication and engagement with its customer base, er, parents and community members.

Some district staff have given cautious kudos to MPS for surveying teachers for their thoughts on school improvement, for example–a simple gesture that some teachers say has never been done before. Likewise, the district just pushed through–with some serious kid gloves–an amended wellness policy, requiring schools to provide 30 minutes of recess to all students, K-8 (but not middle schools). Schools can implement thirty minutes of continuous recess or break it as they see fit–a nod to both parent activists and some school administrators, who did not want to be held to yet another top-down mandate. 

Friend or foe?

On June 27, the district will host the latest in a series of public meetings around a very hot topic: whether or not to renew its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, which provides School Resource Officers (SROs) to the city’s schools. Thorny! Some activists have been repeatedly pushing the district to cancel this contract and instead put the money into more counselors and other support systems. Nationally, the conversation around police in schools is also taking place, with education justice groups like the Advancement Project arguing that using SROs will not keep students safe or adequately address the School to Prison Pipeline (not to mention the furor surrounding the ongoing killing of Black, brown and Native people by police officers).

A 2016 statement from Hiram Rivera, executive director of the well-regarded Philadelphia Students Union, crystalizes the argument against using police in public schools:

“The federal government cannot justify their plan to place guns in schools by suggesting that police officers are mentors and counselors,” continued Rivera. “Police officers are law enforcement agents who are trained to enforce the criminal code. This is a matter of priorities. Government and school officials rarely seem to find money for good teachers, social workers, counselors or investments in programs that improve school culture such as restorative justice, yet they find millions for police in schools? It’s time to start prioritizing student success, not student criminalization.”

Many student and community members have protested the use of SROs in Minneapolis, while some school leaders and parents have advocated for the continued use of Minneapolis police officers–as a way to build relationships between the community and the police, some have said. The district has waded into this potential quagmire by asking for public input, in advance of August’s school board meeting, when a final decision is expected. Here’s a notice MPS has sent out, along with a series of scheduled meetings:

We’re looking for your input on the future of our School Resource Officer (SRO) program. Three options are being considered for how, or if, SROs will continue to provide MPS schools with ongoing safety and security services. An initial recommendation will be made to the Board of Education on July 11 with a Board vote on August 8. Please join us and share your thoughts at a listening session.

June 27 is the last public meeting around the SRO issue. It will take place at Lyndale Elementary School from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Childcare, food and beverages and interpreters (Somali, Hmong and Spanish) will be provided, according to the district notice. If you can’t attend tomorrow’s meeting, there is still time to complete a survey about SROs in the schools.

There you have it. Three distinct parent and community organizing events, taking place at virtually the same time. One–Minnesota Comeback–promises to focus on outsourcing parent involvement through an EdNavigator-like program, funded by billionaires and businesses, while the Minneapolis Public Schools promises to gather authentic community input into the thorny SRO issue. (Community input has traditionally disappeared into a black hole of good intentions through MPS, previously. Will things be different this time around? Community oversight might help!)

ISAIAH’s education meeting will perhaps be the most genuinely community-driven one, with those who show up able to drive the group’s agenda and rally resources around this central question:

Do public schools really belong to the public?

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