Monthly Archives: February 2016

North Minneapolis Teacher: Nice Guy, Finishing First

February 24, 2016

Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Ben Knaus is a nice guy. We agreed to meet on a Sunday, after he got out of church. I was already parked at a southside coffee shop, scribbling notes and reading articles on my phone, when he walked in, all khaki pants and unassuming smile. 

Ben Knaus

We met so he could tell me the story of how, in December and January of this school year, he secured a box load of brand new computers for the kids he works with at Olson Middle School in north Minneapolis.

Olson sits in the very northern corner of the city. If you pay attention to what people in that part of the city say about their schools, you will hear that Olson has long been something of a red-headed stepchild–neglected, forgotten, left to muddle on without such things as proper lighting, or a coveted, competitive IB program.

But that’s all changing. I hear Olson will now have an IB program, along with perked up lighting and a revamped swimming pool.

And, Olson has teachers like Knaus. He lives near the school and teaches in the AVID program, which is a national model Minneapolis uses to help historically underserved kids prep for college. Students have to want to be in the program, which offers them smaller class sizes, and the extra support and resources needed to get their work done and develop good study habits. 

“The cool thing about AVID,” says Knaus, “is that I have kids who are super focused on education.” Many of them are the first in their families to think about getting to college, and less than half of them have computers at home, even though lots of school work today is done through Google Drive and other online tools.

So, when Knaus heard about a deal being offered through a site called, he acted on it. Donors Choose is an online donation site specifically for K-12 classrooms across the United States. Teachers can post a specific project or need that they want funding for, and donors can jump in and make it happen. In a way, it’s heartbreaking, if you stop and think about it. 

But if you don’t think about it too much, and just dive in and ask for funding, you might get what you want or need for your classroom. Knaus saw that Donors Choose had a program going where an outside funder would cover fifty percent of the cost of a student-led project. He showed the email to his AVID students, and three of the kids wanted to help make it happen.

They brainstormed with Knaus, and said they wanted to shoot for new laptops for their classroom. Knaus was cautious, and realistic with the kids. A whole new pile of computers? That’s a big project to fund.

But the kids were undeterred. Together, Knaus and the students wrote up a grant proposal, outlining why they wanted and needed new laptops. At that point, Knaus’s naturally understated style gave way to enthusiasm: “The students came up with really great ideas. It was fun to see them take ownership of the project, and they worked together and edited the proposal. It was really cool to watch.”

The group submitted their grant proposal just before winter break. When they came back to school, they had one question on their minds: “Did we get it?”

They did. They won the initial fifty percent of the grant right away, which meant their $6800 project was now down to $3400. But they still had $3400 to raise.

Knaus took over, and pitched the project to a wider audience on Donors Choose. Mostly, he says, it was his family and friends that pitched in. Then, he threw the project into the social media stratosphere, not knowing for sure where it would land. He put it on Twitter, and posted the project and funding request onto a Facebook group he says is dedicated to helping north Minneapolis teachers get what they need for their students.

Then, the funds rolled in. Knaus’s pitch was simple: “For $60, you can get a laptop in a kid’s hand.” It struck a chord: “One lady–I was blown away–she worked with the AVID program here before, but lives in New York now.” She kicked in money. In just three days, Knaus had what he needed to put in a purchase order for the laptops.

Ben's Computers

Brand new

“I was sitting at home eating dinner, and my phone kept buzzing. I looked, and it was a message from Donors Choose, saying my project was funded.” Knaus’s disbelief made him reluctant to tell his students about their good fortune, until he knew for sure the laptops were coming. 

And before he knew it, they were. In class one day, he got a call from a Best Buy rep, asking where to put the computers. “The kids were in shock,” Knaus remembers. The three kids who had helped write the grant for the laptops stayed after class to help unpack them. “It was a great opportunity. Kids with little technology in their lives got to take a new laptop out of a box. Hopefully, it’s one of those things they’ll never forget.”

I’m guessing they will never forget Knaus, either.

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McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Strong Arm Tactics

February 22, 2016

Fifth in a series: While the Minneapolis school board wrestles with an extended, dramatic superintendent search, I am exploring how the Minneapolis schools fell under the influence of today’s pervasive global education reform movement. Click on these links to get to Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

“Never in my whole life before did I know how much more difficult it is to make business decisions myself than merely advising others what to do….”

–McKinsey & Company founder James O. McKinsey, as quoted in Duff McDonald’s 2013 book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey & Its Secret Influence on American Business

If 2007 was the high point of McKinsey & Company’s involvement in the Minneapolis Public Schools–thanks to the hopeful buzz created by the firm’s pro bono plan for the district–then 2013 could easily be seen as the low point. That year, the buzz wore off, as a companion market-based reform PR strategy, called “Let’s RESET Education,” hit the local airwaves, and floundered.

In 2013, the “RESET” campaign, which was brought to us by the Minneapolis Foundation, put on three beautifully promoted public events. The events were dripping with legitimacy, since it seemed that everybody who was anybody was on board with the RESET mission to promote “proven strategies” for closing the “achievement gap” (such as the venture capital-friendly strategy of constantly monitoring student “progress” through technology).  The RESET events were even co-hosted by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), and held at MPR’s storied Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. 

But the events themselves were embarrassing, and are rumored to have caused a lot of blowback for MPR, which is supposed to, you know, represent the pinnacle of journalistic integrity. In hindsight, the naivete, or collusion, is stunning.

The kick-off RESET/MPR event featured an awkward interaction with Connecticut charter school operator, Steven Perry. Perry, who has since fallen from grace due, in part, to accusations of bullying and abuse at his once-miraculous charter schools, brought his bombastic style to the RESET campaign by referring to teachers unions as roaches that needed to be snuffed out. Perry’s jaw-dropping performance was followed by two other events, featuring musician and reform advocate, John Legend, and Mayme Hostetter, of the very odd RELAY Graduate School of Education.

Hmm. The RESET campaign had been sold as a “reasonable” dive into much-needed reforms by Beth Hawkins, who was then working as an education blogger for local online media outlet MinnPost. 

From a MinnPost piece, announcing Matt Kramer’s new job

Here is where the tangled media-PR-promotional campaign lines really get crossedHawkins was the moderator of the Perry RESET event. She also promoted it on her blog, Learning Curve. Another person on the RESET panel that night was local charter school operator, Eli Kramer. MinnPost was started by Eli’s father, Joel Kramer, who is also father to Matt Kramer, former McKinsey consultant and co-CEO of Teach for America.

Matt Kramer did pro bono work for Teach for America while a McKinsey consultant in New York City, and hopped from Harvard to McKinsey to TFA without ever having to work as a classroom teacher (he is also still listed as a board member of TFA’s less celebrated side group, Leadership for Educational Equity). This head-spinning situation prompted Hawkins to have to explain herself in most blog posts, through a “Kramer Disclaimer“:

Full, obligatory Kramer Disclaimer: Hiawatha Academies’ executive director is Eli Kramer, son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. The MinnPost Kramers are not involved in assigning or editing stories that involve their family members who are active in education issues.

MinnPost is a non-profit news source, and, as such, is dependent on what some would call the “non-profit industrial complex.” One of MinnPost’s funders is, and was, the Minneapolis Foundation, whose RESET campaign MinnPost was promoting through Hawkins’ Learning Curve blog. 

Things feel a little less snug today, since Hawkins has dropped the neutrality charade for good, and is now a “writer-in-residence” at Education Post, a well-funded PR platform for the reform strategies most favored by the 1%. MinnPost, too, is now run by Andrew Wallmeyer, who was, interestingly, a “Summer Fellow” in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2011, in between earning his MBA and becoming a Minneapolis-based McKinsey consultant.

MinnPost was founded in 2007, just as McKinsey was helping strategically redesign the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2014, MinnPost received a two-year, $200,000 Bush Foundation “education ecosystem” grant, due to its position as a “’go-to’” source of education news for elected officials, education advocates and school leaders.” -A few already flush, already PR-saturated education reform groups like MinnCAN and Educators for Excellence (E4E) also received “ecosystem” grants in 2014. (MinnCAN and Eli Kramer’s Hiawatha Academies charter school network were also partners in the RESET campaign, as was Teach for America.)

Here is the Bush Foundation’s explanation of what the ecosystem grants were supposed to do:

We are interested in creating the most favorable ecosystem possible for organizations working to reduce educational disparities and improve outcomes for all students in the region. We believe a supportive ecosystem requires access to critical data, a favorable policy environment and the sharing of best practices. –

It works out great, then, to have your own PR machine, disguised as an objective news source, in your back pocket, helping create that “favorable policy environment.” And the policies are always from the top, and never driven from the bottom up.

RESET might just have been too much, too soon. Too much PR with too little substance, making it easier for those paying attention to catch on to what has seemed to be more of an assault on the Minneapolis Public Schools than a desire to save it. The RESET website is still up, but the campaign appears to have morphed into MN Comeback, another moneyed group aiming to reshape the Minneapolis schools from a 10,000 foot point of view.

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson released her SHIFT plan for the district, which includes many of the RESET strategies. Campaign messages about the importance of more time in the classroom, empowered school leaders, and e€ffective teaching bolstered public perception of the Shift plan.

–RESET Education 2013 Summary Report

Up next: MN Comeback, In Detail

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Pasi Paradox: Finding Our Own Finland

February 20, 2016

Last week, on a frigid but beautiful day in Duluth, MN, I was fortunate enough to spend the morning with Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg. He was in Duluth to give the keynote address at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) conference, and I was there to interview him.

But I couldn’t. I sat and listened to Pasi give his keynote speech, and I listened to him give a more casual, hour-long group session about the state of education policy today, in Finland and elsewhere. I also sat with him at lunch, and chatted with him after the plates of pasta had been cleared away.

Pasi is a vegetarian, like me, and says he is on his way to becoming vegan, due to his concerns over climate change. Honestly, I would rather interview him about that then take another painful plunge down the “this is what Finland did to make their education system one of the world’s best” path. 

Finnish Education Framework

It is painful because there is so much Finland has done that the United States seems to have no interest in doing, even though, as I have heard Pasi say before, many of Finland’s great ideas (and practices) about education reform have come from research done in the United States, generally, and from Minnesota, specifically.

That’s why I couldn’t really interview Pasi. His ideas have been mined extensively, and rightfully so. He’s funny, warm, smart and right on, when it comes to how to actually create a vibrant, successful, equitable education system. That is why, like many others who follow education, I have done pretty much everything I could to soak up Sahlberg’s lessons, except move to Finland (which, I will admit, I have considered). But emulation is not enough. We have to move past him, frankly, and find our own Finland. 

And, no, such a thing–our own Finland–won’t be started with a grant from the Walton Foundation. Finland’s education revolution started with a commitment, which is and must be ongoing, to eradicating poverty and inequality, so that it isn’t just some people’s kids who get access to such current luxuries as play-based learning and critical thinking.

In the United States, such a commitment would have to be paired with a concrete plan to share power with historically marginalized (or, historically looted, some would say) communities, to avoid the colonization and exploitation patterns so often repeated in today’s market-driven education reform efforts. How should we do that? Let’s start with asking the most marginalized what they think. 

The Finnish education system redesign was also built around an equity framework that, in essence, provides an individualized learning plan for each child–and not just the kids who get special ed services, or the kids whose parents can pay for tutors. And all Finnish kids eat lunch at school. They have health care, dental care, and their parents are given parental leave. This is love, and that is where change-making education reform begins.

Could we create that here? And will it last in Finland? Like most European countries, Finland is currently experiencing a values-testing “migrant crisis.” In 2015, it took on more than 30,000 people seeking refuge; most years, they get less than 800. What will Finland do now? Will the “world’s best” education system also be provided to these newcomers?

While we wait and watch, we should get busy building our own Finland.

…rich parents want creativity and flexibility and diverse curricula. They want individualized discipline (if they want discipline at all). They’d have very little patience for chanting in classes and being told what to do with their children at home. But, you know, “those people,” they’re not “like us.”

Ira David Socol

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McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Starvation and Strategy

February 17, 2016

Fourth in a series: While the Minneapolis school board wrestles with an extended, dramatic superintendent search, I am exploring how the Minneapolis schools fell under the influence of today’s pervasive global education reform movement. Click on these links to get to Parts 1, 2, and 3.

“The people who need to know what Itasca is doing are the participants. That’s it.”

–Jennifer Ford Reedy, former McKinsey consultant and Itasca Project advisor, quoted in a recent New York Times article

In 2007, McKinsey & Co. business consultants, in conjunction with the Itasca Project, wrote a new strategic plan for the Minneapolis Public Schools (which was rebranded  as “Acceleration 2020” in 2014). Hardly anyone, it seems, paused to wonder if opening the door to McKinsey/Itasca was a good idea. The plan itself seemed “bold,” according to many news reports from 2007, and loaded with change-making potential.

One 2007 Minneapolis school board member, however, Peggy Flanagan, warned that, unless the state of Minnesota started fully funding K-12 education, the plan’s “ambitious but doable” goals would fall flat. The full funding never came. Instead, state funding for public education in Minnesota dropped precipitously in the 2000’s, just as added pressure on the system was exploding (due to many things, such as a stunning state increase in child poverty). The global education reform movement (GERM) was also fully hitting the United States, after being given a profit-grabbing boost by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law

Recent New York Times photo of the Itasca Project at work

Let’s go back to the Itasca Project for a minute. Itasca is a Twin Cities-based group of high-powered business, philanthropic and public leaders who convene regularly to focus on how to maintain Minnesota’s “economic competitiveness and quality of life.” Their mission is noble, and much has been made of their “Minnesota exceptionalism,” while little–if anything–has been made of the fact that Itasca is staffed by McKinsey & Company consultants, who might just bring a certain data-driven point of view to bear on the problems Itasca likes to wrestle with. 

Research in fact shows that, while McKinsey/Itasca was generously offering to “strategically redirect” the Minneapolis Public Schools, many Itasca member organizations were actively lobbying against providing adequate state funds to public education in Minnesota. Wells Fargo and U.S. Banks are two prime examples of this. Progressive group TakeAction MN, along with the local Service Employees International Union, published a 2013 report called “Students v. Subsidies,” which included this declaration:

As Minnesota has faced budget deficits in recent years, policymakers have chosen solutions that impact K-12 students. That’s thanks in large part to corporations and their executives who have spent millions lobbying against tax increases…The consequences for public education have been severe. Instead of requiring the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share, we have disinvested in our kids’ education. 

The report goes on to specifically address the anti-tax, anti-public school lobbying done in Minnesota by such Itasca affiliated groups as the MN Business Partnership and the Chamber of Commerce:

…corporate executives such as U.S. Bank CEO Richard Davis fail to acknowledge their role in the Chamber and the Partnership’s anti-tax lobbying as they call for improvements in education, trumpeting their involvement in civic groups such as the Itasca Project: “One of the failings that the [Itasca Project] report identifies—and an issue that the Partnership has focused on over the past several years—is the fact that 40 percent of the students entering college are unprepared for their coursework … Improving Minnesota’s K-12 system is not only important in its own right, but will have long-term benefits to our state’s higher ed system as well. We need both systems to function effectively and efficiently if Minnesota is going to successfully compete for jobs in the future.” —Richard Davis, U.S. Bank CEO and Chair of the Minnesota Business Partnership10

So, in and around 2007, was McKinsey/Itasca “doing well by doing good,” as their McKinsey-crafted promo materials claim, or was this group actively working to create a crisis situation for the Minneapolis Public Schools, and public education in Minnesota overall? Or, as an experienced MPS teacher and administrator once said to me,

What do you think happens to something when you try to starve it? 

You make it vulnerable, weak. You expose it to the elements, which includes the mounting, often McKinsey-led national efforts to privatize public education, de-unionize the nation’s teaching force (because unions stand in the way of the market-based reform movement) and exploit the racial and economic disparities that impact who gets access to what kind of education. (Read Mike Rose for a historical take on this, and Gloria Ladson-Billings for a current perspective.)

So, why didn’t anybody say anything? 

Many people were probably too busy just trying to survive. For a data-supported look at this, check out Mary Turck’s excellent recent piece on Minnesota’s “assistance gap” for poor families. Turck’s research shows that welfare and food stamp benefits for these families have not increased since 1986. And, if you’ve seen The Big Short, or read this report from the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, you know that the whole post-2008 economic recovery thing has yet to really trickle down.

And some people have clearly fallen for the carefully coordinated PR campaign that has accompanied McKinsey/Itasca’s ongoing attempts to remake the Minneapolis Public Schools.

More on that next, I promise.

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Julie Landsman: Fearlessness, Persistence, Support Needed in Education

February 15, 2016

Over the weekend, a heart-shattering video from a “no-excuses” New York City charter school–part of the plutocrat-adored Success Academies network–provided a shocking inside look at an abusive first grade classroom. It is hard to watch, but important to look at. Is this what it takes to be considered a “high performing” school for poor kids of color? 

Julie Landsman

Coincidentally, local teacher and writer Julie Landsman sent a guest blog post my way. I will post it here below because it asks us to think more about what teachers teach, how teachers teach, and how relationships–not harsh discipline–inspire learning that matters.

Julie Landsman: Can We Talk About What Kids Are Learning?

Teachers today are told to respond to an array of time-consuming mandates, from redoing an attendance procedure to implementing a program for graphing student response information. But what I have found, as I talk to educators from around the country, is a desire for concrete materials and curriculum that will capture students’ hearts and minds. Instead of a quick –fix reading system, they want to know what actual books, starting from the youngest to the oldest kids, will motivate their students to become engaged in their lessons. Teachers are trying to find a way to reach students who are not graduating, or not doing well on tests and in some cases, not attending school at all.  An overly regimented program, combined with a lack of real connection to students from multiple cultures, often turns away many of those children teachers struggle to reach. And teachers are aware of this.

However, an emphasis on what is being taught can change attendance patterns, graduation rates, and progress in basic skills. There are personal reasons we get into teaching; for me it was love of the kids themselves, and love of my subject area, literature. It was not systems or standards. It was not scripted lessons that needed no input from me. I got into teaching because I wanted students to learn to live in this world, to make their way to college or law school or culinary school: to entertain their wildest dreams.

On the best days, classrooms are vibrant, surprising and even humorous places. On the best days a teachable moment comes, when the structure you have created as a teacher, provides a safe place to explore; and a quiet student says something that galvanizes everyone else to think in a new way. And on this day your lesson is shelved and you create a new assignment on the spot to help students develop the standard, the skill, the focused learning you have been told to teach that day. Your class engages in a dialogue that moves into territory you had dreamed of for them. And you are reminded that this is why you stay in education. 

Such days come as the result of listening to students. They come as a result of creating concrete experiences, using what we have learned about their lives, that will get them reading, or inventing or debating, or researching or writing.  If it means creating a class for African-American Males, or adding African-American History, we do this. If it is developing a rigorous science course around climate change, we do that. Others may record oral histories of elders from their neighborhood. But teachers need training, time and encouragement to create such places, such schools.

There is no abstract system that will solve our educational problems, no canned instructional recipe.  Rather what our students need from us is fearlessness, persistence, and support for change for the long haul.  The language itself needs to go from abstract to concrete; from academic plans to plans and methods that come from concern, from talking, from laughing with the kids and their parents, their community leaders.

Teachers are rarely asked what we think or feel about our work, our students, our families. This must change, as messy as it may be. Teachable moments happen all the time, almost in spite of the prescriptive formulas, the canned curriculum.  Let’s talk in real language about how to make those happen more often. 

Julie Landsman ( is the author of three books on education: Basic Needs: A Year with Street Kids in a City School (Milkweed Editions, 1993) A White Teacher Talks About Race (Rowman and Littlefield 2001) and Growing Up White; a Veteran Teacher Reflects on Racism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). She is also the editor of many collections of essays stories and poems, the most recent being Voices for Diversity and Social Justice, A Literary Education Reader, with Paul Gorski and Rosanna Salcedo, (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) She is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis public schools, and consults and teaches seminars on education, writing, race and culture.

Bernie Sanders in Minneapolis: Reparations and Reconciliation?

February 13, 2016

Can cynicism, despair and optimism exist all at once?

Drum Corps for Sanders

Drum corps at Sanders forum; Photo by Adja Gildersleve

Bernie Sanders came to Minneapolis on February 12, for an event billed as a “community forum on Black America.” The event was hosted by north Minneapolis’s Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and was held at nearby Patrick Henry High School, home of the Patriots. 

The significance of the location was not lost on me. In popular American mythology, Patrick Henry stands as a hero worth naming a school after. As a skilled orator, who was able to appeal to the lower classes, Henry is remembered for bravely declaring he would rather die than live without “liberty.”

Although our history textbooks don’t often dwell on this, early Americans were a rebellious bunch, and their penchant for rebellion–against greedy landowners, for example, who would not pay the militia they depended on–was a threat to the emerging, slave trade-fueled wealth and control of an elite class of men, you know–the ones who were created equal, and were in need of liberty?

People like Patrick Henry helped direct early American unrest towards the British, and away from the enemy within. Henry’s words of fire inspired an assurance that it was the British King, and not the growing American elite, that was the enemy to be defeated. 

Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty? 
Patrick Henry

Bernie Sanders is also a good speaker. Unlike Patrick Henry, Sanders seems bent on naming the problems in front of us: the greed and lawlessness of Wall Street, the control of the corporate class, the ballooning prison industrial complex, the racist oppression built into voter suppression efforts, and so on. 

In Minneapolis, Sanders spoke to the importance of investing in communities of “need,” and to stop punishing people–through exorbitant college tuition rates–for trying to get an education. He touched on environmental racism, at the prompting of an audience member, but would not directly answer a repeatedly called out question:

Will you support reparations for Black Americans?

This question hung awkwardly in the air at the end of the forum, when American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt insisted on being heard. Forum host Anthony Newby, of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, tried to push Bellecourt to ask a specific question, since Sanders was about to exit the stage and hustle over to a local Democratic party event (where Hillary Clinton also appeared). But Bellecourt did not want to be rushed.

“This is a forum for people of color, and I am one of those colors,” he insisted. Some people in the crowd seemed irritated by Bellecourt’s disruption, and felt the event had been organized to specifically address the state of Black Americans.

And in this tension, we can hear echoes of Patrick Henry’s artful dodging, away from our own demons–runaway capitalism, greed, exploitation, the slave labor that built the wealth of this country, the Native lands grabbed for our “Manifest Destiny,” the continuous assault on immigrants and refugees, and so on–and towards a faraway master.

Whose painful legacy can or should be dealt with first? And will a potential Sanders administration be able to deliver on the reparations and reconciliation–through the kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Canada has put in place–that might really power a people-led movement?

For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and to provide for it. 
Patrick Henry

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Minneapolis’s Budget Bungling Must Be Examined

February 9, 2016

Lurking in the shadows of today’s Star Tribune article about the Minneapolis Public Schools’s recent budget backtrack are two important things:

  1. The District Management Council (DMC), a Boston-based consulting company with strong–and expensive–ties to Minneapolis. 
  2. The questionable budgeting practices of current MPS administrators. 

In the article, reporter Alejandra Matos writes that, “A plan to change the way money is spent on Minneapolis Public Schools is on hold.” Matos describes this “plan” as a “new budgeting process…that would ensure that money follows students with the greatest needs.”

On the surface, that is what the proposed, and now nixed, budget changes are about. But, in reality, these potential changes are the byproduct of a brazen money grab, perpetrated on the Minneapolis Public Schools’ community by the DMC, with help from MPS administrators.

Armed with a MPS contract worth over $1 million, the DMC, beginning in 2013, promised to advise district administrators on how to implement a new “student-based” budgeting formula. The DMC’s formula promised to more equitably distribute general education funds to district students, according to levels of need.

DMC got their money and left town, leaving MPS administrators to try to explain to the public just what this proposed new budgeting model would look like. They could not do this. At a series of budget meetings held in the spring of 2015, such higher-ups as former Chief Financial Officer Robert Doty and interim superintendent Michael Goar simply could not explain this new funding model or how it could or would actually be implemented. It was a confusing solution in search of a problem.

The crux of this issue is that Minneapolis, like the state of Minnesota, already disperses funds according to student need. As it should. Every public school student in Minnesota is given a base, per-pupil funding amount. Then, more money is given to students with higher needs. This means districts like Minneapolis–with a higher concentration of homeless and highly mobile students, students learning English, and students requiring special education services, for example–get more state education dollars than other districts with fewer high needs students.

This pattern holds true for students and schools within MPS as well, where schools with larger concentrations of kids in need have a bigger budget to work with. This does not mean that it is right that we have segregated schools, or so many students living in poverty, nor does it mean that schools with close to 100% high needs kids have enough resources. But the DMC’s formula doesn’t ask MPS to address these concerns.

The state’s equitable funding model has consistently earned Minnesota an ‘A’ rating from Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker, who publishes a “national report card” on school funding each year.

This does not mean that there is, necessarily, ample money in the pot, which must then be carved up according to need, but it does mean that the Minneapolis Public Schools should not have spent a million dollars on DMC consultants, to tell us how to “equitably” distribute funds.

DMC’s funding formula depended upon the district naming a base, per-pupil amount for every student. It couldn’t do that. This amount is the money each school in the district uses, just to operate. The other money that students with greater needs generate has to be used only to address those needs, such as learning English, reducing class sizes to improve academic outcomes, or hiring tutors.

The extra funds cannot–legally, ethically–be used to simply “open” a school’s doors each year. This is where DMC’s model went wrong. In order to further divide up funds for Minneapolis students, the base, per-pupil amount for each student would first have to be reduced. This is because there is no more money coming to the district, because of this formula. Instead, it is simply a way to carve up a pie that has already been served.

This would mean that a small school, like North High, which has less than 400 students, would not be able to open its doors using DMC’s budget plan. Why? Because each student would suddenly carry less general operating funds with them–not more. Any extra funds captured would have to go to specifically targeted categories. This is the legal purpose for such things as federal Title 1 money (designed to boost learning opportunities for students in poverty). The “extra” money cannot be used to simply operate a school.

A school without a big enough mass of students, such as North High, or Edison, or Pratt Elementary, would have to shut down. Students would have to go to consolidated schools, for efficiency’s sake, so that there would be enough money for the school to simply function, before those divvied up dollars could be put to specific use. 

Maybe this is the direction MPS thinks we should go in, but that has not been communicated openly to parents. Instead, this has been sold as a more “equitable” model. It is not.

The real issue seems to be that MPS has little awareness of its own budget, and little transparency or accountability for it, even as it is trying to pit schools, students and communities against one another–thanks to DMC–by suggesting that we have to take from some kids to give to other kids, in order to be “fair.” (Example: Look at Matos’s article, and see how MPS has been underestimating known budget categories, to artificially present a “balanced” budget.)

A budget audit was recently done for MPS, and sources within the district say it shows MPS overshot its budget–during Goar’s tenure–by some $25 million, while also “recovering” around $10 million. What? How? Where is the money going? The answers are not clear, partly because MPS presents its budget–at least publicly–as general categories, without an itemized list of where money is going. 

So, do we know–does anyone know–exactly how the Davis Center has been spending money lately? We know DMC captured some district funds, but what else is disappearing into thin air, in the name of “equity”?

If we are going to move forward, we are going to have to start asking the right questions.

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Bernie Sanders & AFL-CIO to focus on Racial and Economic Justice in Minneapolis, Unions

February 9, 2016

It’s 5 degrees outside, but you can put away that parka: things are hot in Minneapolis right now.

Bernie Sanders is coming to a north Minneapolis forum on Friday, February 12. The exact details have yet to be revealed, but the significance of this event is, as Sanders might say, “yooge.”

Sanders will appear at north Minneapolis’s Capri Theater, at the invitation of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a northside non-profit dedicated to fighting for racial and economic justice in the Twin Cities. A February 8 NOC press release says the forum will “focus on the Black experience in America, and specifically in Minnesota” and the racial disparities that exist here and elsewhere. Also up for discussion is what the federal government can do to “invest in radical solutions being developed in Black communities and other communities of color.” The statement says Hillary Clinton declined NOC’s invitation to attend.

According to NOC, a presidential candidate has never held a forum in north Minneapolis, a historic area home to some of Minneapolis’s proudest, yet most marginalized neighborhoods (learn more about the area by watching this superb, story-based video). By agreeing to come here, Sanders will have to put his progressive stump speech to the test.

Are the marginalized and people of color really at the center of Sanders’ proposed reforms? If you follow the recent writings of both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, you know that, this year, there will be no free passes given to candidates who say they want what’s “best” for African-Americans, specifically, or people of color overall.

That seems refreshing, as does another major event scheduled in Minneapolis this week. On Thursday and Friday, Tefere Gebre, Vice President of the AFL-CIO, will be in town for a forum on the need to bring racial and economic justice to the nation’s unions. POCUM Forum

Kerry Jo Felder is the education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation (MRLF), which acts as an umbrella organization for the AFL-CIO, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and other local unions. Felder says Gebre is coming to Minneapolis as part of the AFL-CIO’s eight-city Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice tour.

This tour was set in motion at the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and is intended to provide a platform for confronting the institutionalized racism in labor unions, while also making the case that unions can provide solutions to today’s entrenched and expanding racial and economic inequities.

Felder, who started a People of Color Union Member (POCUM) caucus within the MRLF, says the union must step up and do a better job of acknowledging how racism is holding unions back. “I hear the stories all the time, from my POCUMs. People are sick and tired of being passed over for jobs and promotions.”

Tackling racism head-on is essential to the overall survival of unions, according to Felder, who lives in north Minneapolis and sees disparities–in housing, jobs, income and education–around her every day. “We have to have people who are in the unions go back to the community, and explain why unions matter. Relationships matter. If people are getting passed over for positions, they’re not going to have a good taste in their mouths, or want to help support unions.”

The AFL-CIO held similar racial and economic justice tours in 1995 and 2005, says Felder, but, clearly, not enough has changed.“We’re trying to make this happen,” she insisted. “We hope we can focus on what’s bad about how our unions are operating, come up with some solutions, and make it good.”

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka gets this, says Felder. “He sees that, if the unions are going to survive, they are going to have to include people of color more.”

Perhaps, if Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or any presidential candidate, is going to survive, they will also need to, authentically, address the issues–and solutions–raised by people of color.

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McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis: Trojan Horses, Tobacco Money & Big Banks

February 5, 2016

Third in a series: As the Minneapolis school board embarks on a refreshed superintendent search, I am taking a look at how the Minneapolis schools fell under the distracting and destablizing influence of the market-based education reform movement, also known as GERM. Access part one (McKinsey & Co. Mind Meld) here, and part two (McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis) here.

Part Three

Sick days and snowy days (so beautiful) have slowed my McKinsey series down, but I’m back. Here is a brief recap of where I left things off last week: 

Trojan horse

In 2007, in Minneapolis, McKinsey & Co. consultants–acting in tandem with the local Itasca Project–wrote up a new, nine-point plan for the city’s school district, promising that, though ambitious, their plan was “doable,” and would make every Minneapolis student “college ready” by 2012. The Itasca Project thenloanedMcKinsey consultant Jill Stever-Zeitlin to the Minneapolis Public Schools, who came on in the newly created position of “Chief of Accountability and Strategic Partnerships.” (See more on McKinsey/Itasca “loaning” here.)

Why was a private, for-profit management consulting company providing strategic direction–and privately funded staff–for a public school district? This may be the point at which good intentions (let’s help all kids get to college) crossed paths with a growing national and global market-based education reform movement. This movement aims to get government out of education by replacing public school systems–deemed to be failing and in crisis–with “portfolio” districts, built around “choice” and competition.

This movement also aims to put public education dollars into private, deregulated hands, and, it assumes that people like McKinsey consultants, who are trained in data and performance management, have the answers. (The ultimate goal? To make sure the world’s education institutions serve the needs of global corporations. Watch this McKinsey video for a lesson in this, especially the part where students are described as the “winners” because their “curriculum is being molded by…industry itself.”)

And, McKinsey did its evaluation of the Minneapolis schools for free. In fact, in the 2000’s, McKinsey & Co. consultants got used to doing work, at no cost, for (or to?) the citizens of Minneapolis.  When former mayor RT Rybak took office in 2002, he brought McKinsey in with him.  A 2004 City Pages article put it this way:

During his first months in office, Rybak embraced a report by McKinsey & Company, the consulting group that wrote the business blueprint for Enron. The five-part report mostly focuses on streamlining the city’s planning and development departments, but it also pays particular attention to how the city is viewed through a business/consumerist lens. Corporate jargon like “strong customer service skills,” “responsibility and accountability,” and “strategic goals” are littered throughout.

Perhaps because it was done pro bono, the report seems to have caused few ripples, except for concerns attributed to then-City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee, who worried that the “report does not directly address communities of color, and fails to tackle poverty head-on.” (It is also not clear what, if any, long-term benefits the McKinsey rejiggering accomplished.)

One can also get a peek behind the McKinsey curtain from 2004, when Rybak and his communications director, Gail Plewacki (who is now the communications director for the Minneapolis schools), tried to require the city’s police officers to go through the mayor’s office before speaking to the press. City Pages reporter G. R. Anderson, Jr., described the situation this way: 

Rybak’s press secretary Laura Sether (told) me the policy was simply about the “coordinating of communications.” It wasn’t hard to see the McKinsey effect–a pretense to transparency that was really about information management.

Pro bono work such as this is part of McKinsey’s charitable arm, as it is for many large corporations. But it is also a tried-and-true business strategy: “Philanthropic initiatives … can pave the way for future market-based innovations,” wrote McKinsey executive Doug Conant in a 2013 report. “It’s a great way to learn about communities and their needs, and test new business strategies.”

In Minneapolis, in 2007, McKinsey/Itasca’s pro bono strategic plan for the city’s schools definitely paved the way for “market-based innovations,” in the form of a coordinated, business-led mission to shake up and remake the public school system.

And much of this mission was funded, inadvertently, by Big Tobacco

For years, Jill Stever-Zeitlin’s salary in MPS was paid for by the Itasca Project through a grant from the local Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi Foundation for Children (the RKMC Foundation).  The RKMC Foundation was started, according to RKMC’s website, in 1998, with a “$30 million commitment from the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP law firm. The gift was a result of fees earned from the $6.6 billion settlement in the Minnesota tobacco lawsuit.”

This windfall allowed RKMC to support some beloved local organizations, such as the Children’s Theater, with an initial aim to “support PreK-12 education, public health, and social justice.” But, RKMC’s website tells us, in 2007 the foundation shifted. Just as McKinsey consultants were plunging in to the strategic redesign of the Minneapolis schools, “…the Foundation chose to focus its assets to achieve greater impact on improving children’s lives.”

Here’s what those assets have supported in Minnesota:

  • The Minneapolis Foundation: Through corporate philanthropy and support from the RKMC fund, the Minneapolis Foundation has provided financial support and thought leadership for the pro-business education reform movement in Minnesota. (The Minneapolis Foundation, in turn, provides financial support for the Itasca Project, which received flak in 2010 for wanting to pay its first “CEO” close to $400,000.)
  • The Minneapolis Foundation’s outgoing president, Sandra Vargas, is board chair of the national, hedge fund-heavy education reform network, 50CAN, which the Minneapolis Foundation also helps fund. Vargas became president of the Minneapolis Foundation in 2007, suggesting this was indeed a pivotal year for the local reform movement,
  • Teach for America (TFA). This education reform powerhouse was brought to the Twin Cities with help from the RKMC Foundation, giving TFA a foothold for expansion in Minnesota. While TFA recruits do not have a large classroom presence in Minneapolis, TFA alums have been put into high-profile, highly paid administrative jobs within the district–often after just two years of teaching experience, leading to an emphasis on management systems, data collection and standardization (hallmarks of the McKinsey approach to public education). One example: Minneapolis’s “Office of New Schools,” run by TFA alum Betsy Ohrn, and built to promote the portfolio-like splintering of the Minneapolis schools.
  • TFA also has a “deep bench,” far beyond the classroom, nationally and locally. Beginning in 2012, with TFA alum Josh Reimnitz’s  Minneapolis school board campaign, outside education reform money has poured into local elections. 
  • Educators for Excellence (E4E) is a TFA offshoot, also brought to the Twin Cities by RKMC funds. E4E is positively framed as a place for “teacher’s voices,” but also requires teachers to sign a pledge in order to join. The pledge includes an agreement to be evaluated according to student test scores, which sounds like a great “accountability” tactic, but is deeply flawed and, some would say, profoundly unethical (see this report connecting high stakes testing to the school to prison pipeline). E4E also helps promote corporate structures for public education, such as pay for performance–a controversial practice abandoned, ironically, by Microsoft (E4E is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). E4E has a New York PR firm, SDK Knickerbocker, on retainer to help sell its “teacher-led” message.
  • MinnCAN. The RKMC Foundation provided seed money for MinnCAN, a franchise of the national 50CAN education reform network, to grow here. MinnCAN is run by former TFA-Twin Cities Executive Director Dan Sellers, who also managed, or mismanaged, some might say, the 2014 influx of outside dough into the Minneapolis school board race. (Want to get a handle on MinnCAN’s priorities/lobbying efforts? Follow the money.)
  • MinnCAN has shared office space in Minneapolis with the local pro-charter school expansion group, Charter School Partners. The RKMC Foundation has provided financial support for Charter School Partners, which has since morphed into MN Comebackan incredibly well-funded group with designs on a complete takeover of the Minneapolis Public Schools, through the expansion of “high performing” charter and district schools.
  • MN Comeback has also received money from the RKMC Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation. Additionally, MN Comeback is part of a national education reform support and expansion group called Education Cities (again, follow the money). Amy Hertel is a former McKinsey consultant and Minneapolis Foundation education policy director. She now works for Education Cities, as the Vice President for “Network Impact.”

Think of this as a coordinated, McKinsey/Itasca-RKMC-Minneapolis Foundation-national education reform network marketing campaign, with two dominant talking points: 

  1. The Problem: The Minneapolis Public Schools, like “urban” public education everywhere, is failing. It is expensive, bloated and messy, and it is failing students of color, thanks to entrenched “adult” interests, such as teachers unions.
  2. The Solution: Competition, data, school choice, the expansion of charter schools, the use of “transformational,” non-unionized teachers, mayoral appointed school boards, metrics, performance management, greater “autonomy” in exchange for greater “accountability,” and the systematic redirection of resources from the public into private hands, through “scholarships” (vouchers), for example.

The very real, very consciously-created and unaddressed racial and economic “gaps” that exist in Minnesota and throughout the United States are always used as the (public) justification for this work. 

But here is how a Minneapolis Public Schools employee–who has asked not to be named–remembers McKinsey’s work in the district:

They held focus groups for MPS staff around 2007 — you participated and got a $10 gift card to McDonald’s or something. At the small group I was part of (about 3 or 4 white staff), they asked us what we thought were the main issues facing MPS. I said I thought racism in the form of segregated schools and predominantly white teaching staff. Jill (forget her last name — was running the focus group [and don’t forget McKinsey was doing this for free for MPS]) said, “What do you mean?” I elaborated about white schools, schools of color, low-income schools, privileged schools in SW Mpls; how we had a huge majority of white licensed staff and an ever-growing percentage of students of color, but MPS was not providing any professional development to increase educators’ understanding of our own racism and how it impacts how we view our students & their families.

After that, McKinsey published a big report about their “findings” and it didn’t say a thing about race. They had to publish an addendum to make up for their racist blind spot. 

Retired Wells Fargo CEO Jim Campbell was chair of the Itasca Project from 2003-2008. In a McKinsey & Co. video about the Itasca Project, called “Doing Well by Doing Good,” Campbell describes Itasca this way:

“Our whole focus is on picking issues and working on them and producing results.”

Notably, while Itasca, through McKinsey, was leading a “strategic redirection”–minus democratic input or oversight–of the Minneapolis schools, this happened, thanks to the north Minneapolis group known as NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change):

In October 2011, prompted by outrage over damage to education funding caused by the foreclosure crisis and the lobbying influence the banks are exerting over our democracy and public revenues, NOC presented the school board with a report demonstrating the $28 million negative impact of Wells Fargo’s foreclosure practices on the district’s budget. Community members rallied and testified at the board asking them to move their $25 million monthly payroll account.  NOC followed up in December by presenting the school board with more than 12,000 petition signatures demanding they move their money.

NOC’s organizing pressure was followed, in 2012, by a SEIU (Service Employees International Union) report, titled I.O.U.: How Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank Have Shortchanged Minnesota Schools.” The report’s purpose? To square “some of the blame for a $2.4 billion school shift and other shortfalls in school funding on the practices of the state’s largest banks and their executives.” 

This begs the question: Who is failing whom? And who is controlling the narrative?

More to come! McKinsey, the media, and the education ecosystem

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