Monthly Archives: January 2017

Right-Wing Neo-School Voucher Bill Hits Minnesota

January 29, 2017

Among the polished marble and gold-tinged walls of the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda, a stand-off of sorts took place on January 24. On the outskirts of the rotunda, a circle of protesters–parents, teachers, union reps and activists–stood silently, clutching hand-written, pro-public school and anti-voucher signs. 

Before them, a crowd of school choice advocates began filling the inner circle of the rotunda, all wearing festive, buttercup-yellow scarves around their necks. The scarves came from a local group called OAK, or “Opportunities for All Kids,” but they were also a reminder that, hey–it’s National School Choice Week!

To show solidarity with other school choice devotees, the gold scarves were donned nationwide at charter school and state capitol rallies. Even Betsy DeVos was found sporting one at a Washington, D.C., charter school event. (I’m glad she’s found something to do while waiting to be–most likely–voted in as Trump’s education secretary on January 31.) 

In St. Paul, the OAK folks were also on hand to support the latest attempt to keep Minnesota taxpayer dollars in private hands, when it comes to education funding. Through a bill introduced by Republican Ron Kresha of northern Minnesota, lawmakers will be asked to provide a tax credit for individuals and corporations who make “equity and diversity donations” to private and religious school foundations.  

Such donations are then supposed to be used as scholarships for kids withering away at miserable and/or secular public schools, but don’t call them vouchers (at least not yet). A school voucher, strictly speaking, draws money directly out of public education coffers, and directs it to private schools, including religious schools, in the form of reimbursement. A tax credit, or “neo-voucher,” on the other hand, allows taxpayers (corporate or individual) to avoid paying into the public education coffers in the first place.

These “neo-vouchers” have been spreading across the country more quickly than traditional vouchers. The tax credit model provides a way to funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools with even less public accountability than with regular vouchers, and to bypass state constitutional provisions that have stood in the way of some state’s traditional voucher programs.

–Brendan Fischer, Center on Media and Democracy

Neo-vouchers are the latest school privatization scheme cooked up by the determined forces at ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the place where “global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called ‘model bills’ reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.”  (Read Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, for more info, or scroll through these short videos on ALEC’s agenda.)

ALEC has been pushing school voucher bills since the early 1980’s, under the tutelage of pro-privatization ALEC guru, Milton Friedman. Back then, ALEC tried the honest approach, by openly stating that its original voucher bill was intended to smash teachers’ unions and “introduce normal market forces” into public education.

But they have learned that vouchers are unpopular and, in many states, simply not allowed–thanks to the burdensome separation of church and state. Now, according to the Center on Media and Democracy, “ALEC and other school privatizers today frame ‘vouchers’—taxpayer-funded tuition for private, and often religious, schools—in terms of ‘opportunity’ for low-income students and giving parents the ‘choice’ to send their children to public or private schools.”

A recent Truthout article calls this narrative a “useful fiction” built around the idea that vouchers are “social mobility tickets”–and not a scheme to further segregate, de-fund and destroy public education. And it is working:

The American Federation for Children (AFC), chaired by Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos, estimates that vouchers and voucher-like tax-credit schemes currently divert $1.5 billion of public money to private schools annually. But that is not enough. By expanding “pro-school choice legislative majorities” in state houses across the country the organization hopes that $5 billion a year will be siphoned out of public schools by 2020 and applied to for-profit and religious schools.

Minnesota’s Voucher, er, Tax Credit Bill

This kind of “voucher by another name” is what we have with the bill now moving through the Minnesota legislature. ALEC has named its model bill the “Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act (Scholarship Tax Credits),” and Minnesota legislators have brought it, once again, to the Senate and House for consideration. In the mold of ALEC, they are calling it the “Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” The basic premise of it is that individuals and corporations can direct their tax dollars to private school foundations, rather than pay into the state’s general education fund.

These donations, as noted above, would be used to provide tuition scholarships for individual students. And, the qualifying income level for these scholarships is quite high: a family of five making $105,000 per year, or twice the limit allowed by federal reduced lunch guidelines, would be eligible. (This points back to the idea that vouchers are more about breaking the public school system than helping low-income kids attend spendy private schools.) The state’s general education fund stands to lose up to $35 million if this neo-voucher bill passes.

In 2015 Republicans tried to push a similar bill through, with help from Democrat Terri Bonoff, a determined Teach for America and education reform supporter who ran for Congress in 2016 and lost. (The Minnesota push for vouchers goes back, at least, to the 1990’s.) The bill didn’t make it, but it’s back–and this year, Republicans control both the House and Senate in Minnesota. 

An important note:

But…School Choice!

Back to the gold-scarved, school choice rally sponsored by OAK, or “Opportunities for All Kids.” OAK is a relatively new organization run by long-time Republican operative, Chas Anderson, who was closely aligned with former Governor Tim Pawlenty and once held a top spot in Minnesota’s Department of Education.

I can’t tell where OAK gets its funding from, as they do not appear to be a registered nonprofit. In 2015, Anderson joined forces with two other “high-ranking alums of the Minnesota GOP”–Kurt Zellers and Brian McClung–to start a PR firm, MZA+Co. The return email address for OAK is Anderson’s MZA+Co email address: chas@mzacompany.com, so it is unclear whether OAK is a separate group or a project of her PR firm. 

In April, 2016, former Pawlenty spokesman McClung appeared on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac program to weigh in on Republican plans to fix the “achievement gap.” Ripping a page from ALEC’s playbook, McClung emphatically gave Almanac host Cathy Wurzer an earful: “For too long,” he insists, “Democrats and the teachers’ union have stopped kids from having real choices…and so we need to find ways to empower parents.”

He doesn’t mention that, as the state’s population has grown steadily less white and less wealthy, public funding for education has dropped. This is, of course, a Friedman-esque way to create a crisis for our public schools, thereby “proving” they are failing–and insisting that neo-voucher, school choice schemes are the only way to fix them. 

Choice Before Quality

At the OAK rally on January 24, as silent protesters stood witness, a small and equally quiet group stood before a podium. There, Arizona charter school advocate and sought after education reform expert Lisa Graham Keegan took the stage wearing a crisp red suit and waxing on about how she and her husband are “blessed to have a home in northern Minnesota.” 

Image result for lisa graham keegan

Lisa Graham Keegan, at a previous school choice rally. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Graham Keegan glowingly stated that she is “passionate, passionate” about school choice, but confessed to being “agnostic” when it comes to where kids go to school. “We love having choices,” she told the group in front of her,” because our five children are very different.” Graham Keegan helped write charter school legislation in Arizona, where, she has admitted, quality control lagged far behind the desire to make school choice a reality. (Arizona already has a state law that gives individual and corporations tax credit for directing their monies to private school foundations.)

Local school choice supporter Reynolds-Anthony Harris followed Graham Keegan onstage, saying that “our job is to harvest the best out of our children.” Harris is a small business owner whose company, Lyceum Partners+Design, was listed as a supporter of a series of school board candidate events in Minneapolis in the fall of 2016.  At one of these events, Harris moderated a particularly contentious candidate forum on behalf of  “Animate the Race,” a side project of Minnesota Comeback (another “sector agnostic” group with wealthy funders). 

After Graham Keegan and Harris were finished, OAK supporters headed off to a luncheon, to be followed by attendance at the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act hearing in the House Education Finance Committee. 

The line of resistance, so far, to this ALEC-crafted tax credit bill has been drawn by Education Minnesota, NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change), and the faith-based group, ISAIAH. Before the school choice rally, these groups held their own media event in the basement of the state capitol. Hoisting signs that called vouchers a “false promise,” supporters called for more resources for existing public schools–more nurses, more mental health support, and more investment in training and retaining teachers of color.

Tax credits are just another name for vouchers, they insisted, before calling out the “two-tiered systems”–one for wealthier, white students, and one for marginalized students of color–that vouchers and other school choice schemes have created in cities such as MIlwaukee, Washington D.C., Cleveland, and, of course, DeVos’s Detroit.

Paul Slack, president of ISAIAH and head pastor at north Minneapolis’s New Creations Church, ended the anti-voucher rally by saying that “public education is still our best opportunity–not perfect–but the best opportunity for all of us.”

“Collectively,” Slack said, “we have one question for our legislators. Are you listening?”

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Minneapolis’s Previous School Board Can’t Vote on Proposed Policy Manual

January 10, 2017

Tonight, the new Minneapolis school board members will be seated. Just before that meeting, last year’s board will hold a ceremonial event to welcome the new members and conduct the oath of office.

What will not happen is a previously expected vote by the departing board on two key issues: 1) the revised policy manual largely orchestrated by outgoing member Josh Reimnitz, and 2) the make-up of the district’s Workforce 2020 advisory committee. In a December post, I spelled out the concerns with the revised policy manual, which is based on a somewhat obscure model called Carver Policy Governance

After months of work in 2016, it seemed as though the board’s policy committee, led by Reimnitz, would be able to get the policy manual passed at the December board meeting, despite concerns that the proposed revisions (intended to guide the school board’s work) had yet to be thoroughly vetted by the public. Adding to this concern was the seemingly sudden realization that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment had been completed for the new policy manual, although such an assessment is a district requirement for any new, notable “future policies, practices, programs and procedures.”

This realization–that no such assessment had been done–killed chances for a December vote. Rumors then circulated that the 2016 school board would get one more chance to push a vote through on the revised manual. That’s because the first meeting of the new year includes a nod to the outgoing members, as noted above, and a suspected (planned upon, really) opportunity for the exiting board members to squeak in a couple of votes before the new board is officially seated.

Not true. Statute dictates that the departing board members’ voting rights were valid until December 31, 2016, and not a day after. Reimnitz (along with the other two outgoing members, Tracine Asberry and Carla Bates) will therefore not be able to weigh in on whether or not the board should adopt the trimmed down policy manual he helped craft. (Many close observers say the manual is simply not ready for prime time, either. and in need of further hashing out.)

The policy manual vote is nowhere to be found on tonight’s agenda. Neither is any further discussion of who should be on the district’s Workforce 2020 committee. This committee is a state-mandated advisory group, and it must include community members who will attend monthly meetings and advise the school board on “rigorous academic standards and student achievement goals and measures.” All board members were allowed to suggest two names for this committee; those names were then slated for approval at December’s board meeting.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the board came to an awkward pause that night, when it appeared not all board members were prepared to sign off on the Workforce committee–as the suggested names had not been previously given to the board for review. Should the board vote in one fell swoop on something they hadn’t seen until just then? Questions like this caused citywide representative, Rebecca Gagnon, to stop the process. Three hours and ten minutes into the four-hour long meeting, Gagnon told board chair Jenny Arneson that she “didn’t know we were voting on this tonight.” 

“We’re not, unless we approve it,” Arneson quickly replied. But, unless Gagnon had spoken up, it seems clear that the vote on the committee’s make-up would have sailed forward, with no public discussion on the proposed names on the list. Does it matter? Maybe not. But at least two names on the list–Al Fan and Kyrra Rankine–stand out as worthy of further scrutiny.

To be eligible to serve on the district’s Workforce committee, participants are supposed to be “teachers, parents, staff, students, and other community residents invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” But Kyrra Rankine has been a longstanding Teach for America–Twin Cities employee, and Al Fan is the executive director of Minnesota Comeback, a moneyed education reform group with a declared goal of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” (?) in Minneapolis, by 2025–in “sector neutral” settings. 

Sector neutral means any school setting–charter, private, public–is fine, so long as it “beats the odds” for kids in poverty. This may be one (arguably unsuccessful) way to fund education, but it is certainly not the same thing as being “invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” The public doesn’t “own” Minnesota Comeback the way it owns a public school district. There are no meetings posted on the Minnesota Comeback website, and no elected officials sit on its policy and “talent” committees. Minnesota Comeback is wielding influence with minimal public oversight. There are no four-hour long videos of any Minnesota Comeback gatherings to pour over and report on. 

Democracy!

The Minneapolis Public Schools might be a bureaucratic mess in the eyes of many, but it also must answer to the public through open meetings, a democratically elected school board and public data requests. Minnesota Comeback must, presumably, only answer to its funders, such as the Minneapolis Foundation, which described the group this way in a December, 2015 newsletter:

  • Minnesota Comeback (formerly the Education Transformation Initiative) will develop a portfolio of strategic initiatives and school investments to ensure that all Minneapolis students attend high-quality schools by 2025.

Minnesota Comeback and Teach for America are frequent darlings of the local philanthropic community, as evidenced by the Minneapolis Foundation’s 2017 grant cycle. Should their representatives have a seat on a Minneapolis Public Schools Workforce 2020 committee?

Perhaps, but it seems that is a conversation the school board should have in public. And, with the rush to vote stopped, it looks like that’s what citizens just might get in 2017–for the proposed policy revision and for the Workforce 2020 committee.

Also up tonight: a shuffling of school board officers. Jenny Arneson will no longer be board chair. Instead, Don Samuels, Nelson Inz and Rebecca Gagnon are vying to fill her spot. Vice Chair is expected to go to Kim Ellison, while Arneson has put her name in for Treasurer. New board members Bob Walser and Ira Jourdain are said to be interested in taking over Reimnitz’s seat as Clerk, who oversees the board’s policy committee. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. at Davis Center headquarters and is broadcast live online here.

Consider making a new year donation to Bright Light Small City to keep this work going for 2017. My work is entirely funded by my kind and generous readers! Thank you so much to those who have already donated.

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Taking Reformers Out of Context: 2016 Highlights

January 1, 2017

It’s New Year’s Day, and for now, my house is quiet. Before me sits tons of work to be done–an unlit Christmas tree ready to be turned into a winter bird feeder, stacks of shared skates in need of sorting, and, of course, the pile of dishes that so quickly crowd my tiny kitchen counter.

I want to write instead. 

Leo

On December 19, my 103-year old grandfather, Leo, died. He was a writer, up until the last months of his life. We were not close while I was growing up, but he did tell me once that, to be a writer, one has to “apply seat of pants to chair, and write.” Thinking about writing, talking about writing, imagining the perfect, clutter-free life that would lead to volumes of unforgettable work–none of this counts as much as just sitting down and writing.

In  2017, I hope to do more of that. I am working on a book, which has taken me somewhat out of the social media eye and required me to work the old-fashioned way: slowly, with lots of handwritten notes. Before I move further down that path, I want to reflect on some 2016 blog highlights.

In 2016, this little blog started the year on fire by tracking Minneapolis’s superintendent search. On January 4, I published a piece on then-candidate Sergio Paez, who was fighting to save his job, and his name:

Paez says he is coming to Minneapolis to “be able to talk to people about anything they have in mind and to learn more about MN in the process.” His email makes no mention of the fact that, although the Minneapolis school board chose him as the district’s next superintendent in December of 2015, he is now in the unexpected position of having to fight for the job.

This led to a rush of early 2016 pieces about Michael Goar (once the favored candidate for school superintendent), the District Management Council (high-priced reform consultants from Boston) and a series of posts on how Minneapolis become a breeding ground for neoliberal education reform.

This is how it started, on January 25, 2016:

Minneapolis, we need to talk about McKinsey & Co., the Itasca Project and their influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Four more posts detailing global business consultant McKinsey & Company’s involvement in Minneapolis followed, paving the way for a look at Minnesota Comeback–the latest philanthropic effort to redesign the Minneapolis schools.

This writing hasn’t made me popular among the reformer crowd. At a late 2016 reform-funded school board campaign event, a main funder of Minnesota Comeback grew huffy in my presence. I was standing near him as a friend asked questions about the group’s plans for the Minneapolis Public Schools. “Ladies,” he said shortly, “this isn’t an interview.” (He is the same funder who, at a previous Minnesota Comeback event, cheerfully reduced a friend and I to mom status.)

He realized we weren’t there to thank Minnesota Comeback for the lush buffet they had put on for the candidate forum. “Some people take things out of context,” he said, tapping me on the shoulder before walking off. 

Do I? I can see why Minnesota Comeback members might think this way, as they typically enjoy very flattering press coverage that is conspicuously devoid of context.

Consider this MinnPost piece from December, 2016: “How one education nonprofit is seeking to create a groundswell of parent engagement.” In the piece, MinnPost education reporter Erin Hinrichs creates a glowing picture of Minnesota Comeback’s efforts, and their self-financed ability to spin out grants to organizations and schools they like.

Grant distribution is a questionable way to create a better school system, but that doesn’t come up in Hinrichs’ piece. Instead, Minnesota Comeback is treated to an unblinking look at its recent work, which includes:

  • Hiring a community engagement director who is publicly very pro-charter school
  • Dousing an already well-funded entity, Students for Education Reform, with cash (the nationally run group started, in 2011, with $30,000. One year later, they reported almost $2 million in revenue. If you want to know who they are and what they stand for, research SFER’s board members).
  • Closing the “information gap” by hosting “conversations” with parents through New Publica, a media group run by former Minneapolis school board member, Alberto Monserrate. New Publica lists MinnPost as one of their clients, along with a handful of other education reform outlets, as well as non-education, business entities. If MinnPost has paid New Publica for PR work, and MinnPost then writes a positive take on New Publica’s other work, does this count as journalism?

A friend of mine recently told me that pro-privatization groups will always tell you what they are doing,  if you know what to look for. That is true with Minnesota Comeback as well (look! they hired a new talent director with a background in “recovery” school districts), but it should be the job of reporters to connect the dots for citizens, and pierce through the group’s own PR platitudes.

That’s what this blog is intended to do, but the workload is heavy. There appears to be no mainstream or even alternative press (besides this little site) in Minnesota doing investigative work into education reform groups and their cozy ties to Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens.

Consider making a new year donation to Bright Light Small City to keep this work going for 2017. My work is entirely funded by my kind and generous readers! 

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In loving memory of Leo Sonderegger, 1913-2106. Peace activist, ACLU defender, conscientious objector to war and 2013 Elders Wisdom, Children’s Song honoree.

“The world changes so fast/write it down.”