February 14, 2018
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!
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.
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