Monthly Archives: May 2017

Minnesota Governor “Disrupts” Right-Wing Education Reformers

May 22, 2017

In the middle of a stormy legislative session, which is careening to a close at midnight tonight, Minnesota’s Governor, Mark Dayton, has thrown two clear lifelines to public education supporters across the state.

First, on May 18, Dayton took a bold swipe at a shifty, right-wing aligned overhaul of the state’s teacher licensure laws, called HF 140. Citing concern over the proposal’s lack of dedicated funding support, as well as doubts over the tiered approach to licensure offered in the bill, Dayton vetoed HF 140 and sent those supporting it back to the drawing board. “The move came as a shock to Republicans,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, “who argued the bill was a bipartisan improvement to the often-criticized current system.”

The Republicans–at least, the publicly identified ones–weren’t the only ones shocked over Dayton’s rejection of the teacher licensure bill. A group of Minneapolis-based education reform interests, many of whom share an address on University Avenue, also expressed dismay with Dayton’s decision.

Calling themselves a “coaltion, groups such as Minnesota Comeback, Ed Allies, Teach for America, Students for Education Reform and Hiawatha Academies (a local charter school chain) sent a letter to Dayton on May 17, urging him to support HF 140. SIgning this bill into law, they promised, would help “countless teachers find a pathway into Minnesota classroom.” (They can’t do so now because of Minnesota’s cumbersome licensure laws, the argument goes.)

What’s more, the letter asserts, HF 140 would allow “school leaders to recruit and retain the best educators for our students.” How so? By having a tiered licensure system, offering several levels of qualifications to work in a school as a teacher. What caught Dayton’s eye was the proposed “Tier 3,” where a candidate could have, in essence, an unlimited, provisional teaching license. (Who would hire these teachers? Blake? Breck? Majority white public schools?)

This provision would have provided a fast track to a disposable, non-union teaching force–perfect for staffing the kind of “high performing, innovative” charter schools favored by education reformers. And, it ties HF 140 right back to its beginnings as a model ALEC bill. In 2006, ALEC–a “pay to play operation” that writes legislation for state and federal elected officials on behalf of corporations and conservative, pro-privatization causes such as Right to Work and Stand Your Ground laws–passed its own teacher licensure law, called the “Alternative Certification Act.”

What does ALEC want? A less skilled, less empowered, non-unionized workforce, preferably in charter schools rather than unionized public schools (charter schools can operate with less public oversight, and a more malleable teaching force may be more willing to experiment with personalized learning and other investor-friendly ventures.) ALEC has been heavily funded by the billion dollar Walton Family Foundation, set up by the folks behind Wal-Mart.

Guess who else is heavily funded by the Walton Foundation? Nearly everybody on the coalition letter sent to Governor Mark Dayton. For example:

  • Minnesota Comeback (the group determined to bring “30,000 rigorous, relevant seats” to Minneapolis)
  • Great MN Schools (the fund behind Minnesota Comeback)
  • Ed Allies (the lobbying arm affiliated with Minnesota Comeback)
  • Educators 4 Excellence (an offshoot of Teach for America, designed to supplant teachers unions and promote neoliberal education policies around testing and teacher evaluations)
  • Students for Education Reform (spurred by hedge funds)
  • Teach for America ((which seeks to stay alive by serving as an alternative licensure operation, staffing primarily charter schools)
  • Hiawatha Academies (run by Eli Kramer, whose brother Matt, a former TFA executive, also signed this letter through his new group, the Wildflower Foundation)
  • Prodeo Academy (local charter school prized by reformers)
  • KIPP MN (funded in part by the Minneapolis Foundation, which has received money from the Walton Family Foundation, as have many charter schools in MN)

    Cozy! MN Business Partnership Ed Policy rep, Jim Bartholomew, echoing “broad support” for the ALEC-influenced ed reform coalition

These groups often sell themselves as being all about equity and improved opportunity for marginalized communities. It’s curious to note, then, that both the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership–two pro-business, anti-tax lobbying giants–are also listed as part of this education reform coalition.

Flashback! In 2012, the Minnesota Business Partnership stood solidly behind another ALEC-written law, the Voter ID bill that sought to limit voting rights in Minnesota. This bill was described as an “intentional effort to reduce the voting rolls in order to help corporate conservatives further expand their wealth and power.”

This leads to another sketchy education policy provision recently axed by Governor Dayton. In the wee hours of budget negotiations last night, Republican state senator Roger Chamberlain, listed here as a member of ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Taskforce,” acknowledged that the ALEC-sprung measure–neovouchers, or “tax credit scholarships”–had been taken out of the omnibus tax bill.

First, St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger made this announcement:

Chamberlain responded with a terse Twitter statement of his own, declaring that “kids lose again.” Kids lose the opportunity, I guess, to be pawns in a game funded by wealthy ideologues like the Waltons, Betsy DeVos and ALEC’s corporate supporters–all of whom have stood emphatically behind the disruptive” effects of vouchers (using public money for private schools that do not have to accept “all kids.”)

Dayton has skillfully blocked these two attempts to weaken Minnesota’s stance as a pro-public school state. It couldn’t have been easy, since there are real issues wrapped up in the attempts to reshape teacher licensure laws, and elite forces are skilled at creating or using a crisis (teacher shortage!) to push through their preferred solutions.

Now, before midnight strikes tonight, Dayton faces a very heavy lift: getting ALEC-minded legislators and lobbyists to agree to fund Minnesota’s public schools. Without an investment from the state, public education in Minnesota will remain under further attack from right-wing ideologues and their well-funded agendas. 

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Minnesota Comeback Cites “Laggards,” “Fringe Bloggers” as Problematic

May 10, 2017

In an email blast sent to supporters recently, the local education reform advocacy group, Minnesota Comeback, warned that “laggards” and “fringe bloggers”–myself included–are “spew(ing) false descriptions” of their work. 

Brand management experts warn: Don’t be a laggard!

With a subject line that read, “You’re an innovator. Diane Ravitch and fringe bloggers won’t get that,” the email sought to control Minnesota Comeback’s message of being the source of new thinking (and funding) on education. The pep talk continued later in the email, with a direct message to Minnesota Comeback investors, er…innovators:

On the innovation adoption curve, you’re an innovator. You’re a pioneer determined to do what it takes to make sure all kids have access to a rigorous and relevant education. On the opposite end of the spectrum: Laggards.

Laggards! The email then details the group’s current displeasure with Diane Ravitch, who maintains a widely read blog about public education and the political climate surrounding it. Ravitch apparently attracted Minnesota Comeback’s ire by reposting work from local writer and photographer, Rob Levine, who has recently launched a website critiquing education philanthropy in the Twin Cities. 

“It’s inevitable,” the email reads, “as our momentum builds…the higher our visibility in the public eye becomes.” It then goes on to cite the “praise” Minnesota Comeback’s work has earned. The citation–there is just one–is a link to an opinion piece about Minnesota Comeback’s good work, written by one of its own affiliates, Antonio Cardonia. This might actually be PR rather than objective praise, but I digress. 

Success, it seems, has led to unwarranted attacks from bloggers–like me, Ravitch and Levine–who avoid data and instead run on speculation and a laggard-like lack of dedication to rigor. “A growing trend of bloggers like Sarah Lahm, Rob Levine and Diane Ravitch spew false depictions of our work,” Fan advises the group’s email recipients, before complaining that, “what’s most troubling is the lack of accountability.” 

The email encourages supporters to go to Ravitch’s website and contribute positive comments about the group, so that Ravitch might be persuaded to interview Minnesota Comeback and offer a “fair” depiction of their work.

In the interest of fairness, I think it is important to consider a few things. First, Minnesota Comeback is part of a national organization, Education Cities, that is funded by a heavy hitting collection of billionaires, including the Gates, Dell, and Walton foundations. (For a review of the pitfalls of this kind of support, read Joanne Barkan’s 2011 piece, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.“)

Education Cities is also funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Arnold is a former Enron executive who walked away–wealthy and unscathed–from that company’s collapse. He went on, while still in his thirties, to lead a campaign against pensions for public employees. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi included Arnold in a 2013 article about Wall Street-led campaigns to destroy public pension funds:

As Enron was imploding, Arnold played a footnote role, helping himself to an $8 million bonus while the company’s pension fund was vaporizing. He and other executives were later rebuked by a bankruptcy judge for looting their own company along with other executives. Public pension funds nationwide, reportedly, lost more than $1.5 billion thanks to their investments in Enron.

–Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, “Looting the Pension Funds”, 2013

After leaving Enron, Arnold became a billionaire through natural gas trading. This led to the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, which was, according to Taibbi’s article, “among other things, dedicated to reforming the pension system.” Pensions had been subjected to raids for years by politicians looking to fill other budget gaps, and were being painted, by Arnold and others, as an “unfunded liability” immersed in crisis (and thus desperately in need of reform).

Sound familiar? Arnold has a history of supporting campaigns that gut public entities amid a climate of “crisis.” The claim is always that there is no money. (He’s also helped rescue Head Start and provided money for “science reform.”) This might explain why the Arnold Foundation, along with the Waltons and Gates, and other titans of runaway capitalism, is supporting Education Cities, which in turns provides–if nothing else–the policy framework for Minnesota Comeback. (Local philanthropic foundations and individuals, in addition to the Walton Foundation, provide financial support for Minnesota Comeback.)

The Walton Foundation’s K-12 priorities–backed by over one billion dollars–can be found here, and analyzed here. (Analyzing the Walmart heir’s actions does not necessarily equal the “spewing of false descriptions” of their work.)

Here’s the thing. Minnesota Comeback is less of a new organization, rife with an unquestionable devotion to public education, and more of a sophisticated repackaging of familiar, market-based education reform priorities. After all, director Al Fan left a career in brand management at General Mills to focus on “social philanthropy, with a special interest in working with high-performing charter schools in Minnesota,” according to an online profile.  He may have left General Mills, but undoubtedly not without his brand management skills.

Fan first landed at Charter School Partners, a Walton Foundation-funded group with office space at 2800 University Ave SE #202 in Minneapolis (keep this address in mind). As recently as 2014, Fan was still leading Charter School Partners, whose stated goal, at one point, was quite audacious:

Charter School Partners strategic focus for New Schools for the Twin Cities is to help create 20 new high-performing, high-achieving charter schools in the next five years serving Twin Cities-area families who previously have not had access to excellent schools. This aggressive timetable reflects CSP’s sense of urgency that all children deserve a world-class education no matter their zip code or income levels.

–archived Charter School Partners website

This “aggressive urgency” might have come across as unbridled hubris–especially since it appears to have been accompanied by a lack of success. (For evidence of this, watch this Charter School Partners promo video, posted to YouTube in 2015, which showcases the talking points and plans for this group.) Charter School Partners dove, rather than waded, into tricky political waters by embracing naive charter school expansion plans, while also proudly announcing partnerships with Teach for America and financial support from the Walton Foundation (who profess to care about communities of color but won’t provide living wage jobs?). 

I’ll get you those high-performing charters!

Just a few years ago, under the Charter School Partners banner, Fan was clearly devoted to “aggressive” charter school growth plans (someone really needs to do a study of the he-man language around ed reform). A 2012 policy document from Fan’s organization displays the thinking behind the brand management. 

Here are a few examples from the document, called “Charters 2.0”:

  • Improve the “teacher talent pipeline” for charters that serve “high populations of poverty.” (This is a frequent reformer goal, intended–many analysts think–to benefit organizations like Teach for America.)
  • But…in the case of “blended learning” (a key area of interest for venture edu-philanthropists), Fan’s proposal advocated for teacher-less classrooms. Instead, teachers could “supervise delivery of instruction to online learning students” without being “physically present.”
  • And…maybe teachers aren’t that essential after all. The “blended learning revolution” could allow for “non-licensed staff supervising students working computer curriculum, without necessarily the direct supervision of the licensed teacher of record”–at charter schools.
  • It also sought to “incentivize” charter schools that outperform traditional public schools on standardized test proficiency rates. On the surface, this could seem like a great way to foster competition and a greater focus on student (testing) achievement. But, in the context of today’s education reform climate, it’s not really that simple.

These are the reform policies favored by the one-percent. They are also part of an ongoing, bipartisan embrace of a top-down “disruption” of public education. It doesn’t mean that every idea or person associated with these plans should be immediately dismissed. It just means that this is the framework–elite, philanthropist-funded, pro-privatization (sector agnostic!)–that comes along with these policy preferences.

Fan was promoting these policies as recently as 2014, before Charter School Partners morphed into Minnesota Comeback. And why did it morph? Maybe because charter schools became problematic, necessitating a rebranding. In 2015, for example, the Star Tribune published an article showing that, in Minnesota, charter school students were not doing as well as their public school peers. (They have become quite segregated, too, along with traditional public schools–a byproduct of this country’s move towards school choice rather than desegregation.)

Click to enlarge

Public awareness of market-based education reform and its connection to plutocracy, hostile takeovers of entire districts and lack of actual choice and voice for parents has grown. Enter Minnesota Comeback and its more “nuanced,” less bombastic approach to education reform. Same players, same funders–with a new name and a new game plan. (But still a lot to learn.

We can tell a lot, in fact, by reviewing the addresses of Minnesota Comeback and its affiliates:

  • Charter School Partners was housed at 2800 University Ave SE #202, Minneapolis. 
  • Minnesota Comeback is now housed at 2800 University Avenue, SE #202 Minneapolis. (Former Minneapolis school board member, Josh Reimnitz, was also a part of Minnesota Comeback’s launch, apparently.)
  • Morgan Brown, former Director of School Improvement for Charter School Partners, is now associate director of Great MN Schools, “ a venture philanthropy fund that aligns and maximizes investments in growing high-performing and high-potential schools in Minneapolis.” This org is also housed at 2800 University Ave, SE, #202.
  • Great MN Schools was “incubated” by MN Comeback, and appears to be oddly embedded within the Minneapolis Public Schools, where it is “considering a request for proposals from three Community Partnership Schools in the Minneapolis district.” (Beware public-private partnerships!) A Minneapolis school, Bancroft Elementary, even appears on the Great MN Schools website, as one of “their” portfolio schools–along with a handful of charters. 

There’s more.

That’s one tightly knit cabal of transformative innovators, with incredible access to more money than, perhaps, the Minneapolis Public Schools, with no obligation to hold open meetings, comply with public information requests or otherwise bow to the kind of accountability and transparency so often demanded of our put-upon public schools.

I have no doubt that many of the philanthropists and foundations that give their names and their money to Minnesota Comeback believe in the group’s stated mission, to “collaborate with diverse stakeholders in our K-12 ecosystem” in order to wipe out “education gaps.” The ultimate goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s official communications, is to “ensure all K-12 students have access to a rigorous, relevant education.” 

We do need innovation, collaboration and support from wealthy investors (especially those who understand that education alone cannot fix poverty or wipe out institutional racism). We also need a free and fair press, fully equipped to check the claims–however well-intended–of those with the most power, wealth and influence.

Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.

–Harvey Kantor. Education Can’t Fix Poverty. So Why Keep Insisting That?” Have You Heard Blog (fringe!)

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On Buckthorn, Neoliberalism and Other Invasive Things

May 1, 2017

Last week, as I was driving my South High School student to an event, she began naming all of the trees lining the street. There’s a River Birch, she called out, and my favorite, she said excitedly–the Scotch Pine. See how they bend, close together? 

River Birch in bloom

Another time, we went for a walk near Lake Harriet. It wasn’t long before she was naming the birds around us, based on their look and sound. She hasn’t learned any of this from me, although I have lived most of my life in Minnesota, surrounded by our trees, lakes and birds. Instead, she has a Minnesota Ecology class this semester, at South. It is taught by a teacher I’ve never met, but someone my daughter has taken to with eager enthusiasm. 

Recently, the class went on a field trip to a wildlife refuge along the Mississippi River. They spent the day clearing buckthorn and learning about other invasive plant species. It was grubby, thrilling work–rewarded with a free lunch buffet. My kid was over the moon with joy. It was the kind of dirty work she, and a lot of kids, I imagine, long for. It feels real, and it beats sitting in a windowless classroom on a spring day (or any day, to be honest).

Her experience at South has been far from perfect. We’ve navigated communication breakdowns with teachers, and tearful moments of panic over due dates, friendships and the prison-like look and feel of South. But we’ve reached the heights, too. She’s on the honor roll. She just got inducted into the National Honor Society with seventy-four of her tenth grade peers; the Society’s new president is a Somali-American student who promises to bring a new style of leadership to the service-oriented group.

She has friends from all over the city. She’s learning another language. She interacts with people from many walks of life. On a Saturday afternoon, she went to a Battle of the Bands, sponsored by South and held on the school’s bleak track field. This week, I’m helping her pick out frames for some of her own artwork, which made it into Intermedia Arts’ spring show. (Her Advanced Art teacher encouraged students to submit their work for review.)

Why am I writing all of this? Isn’t the Minneapolis Public Schools burning to the ground? The district has no money and stagnant test scores. The public is angry; district principals are even more upset. 

But on the ground, the district succeeds in many ways. I have spent a fair amount of time this year at north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Community School, observing, writing and getting to know the kids and their teachers (and food service workers, engineers, behavior support people and administrators). Mostly, I have been embraced by the kids, especially a handful of third graders who greet me with hugs and a warm “Ms. Lahm!” whenever I show up. 

Last Friday, I sat with a few of them as they relaxed and drew pictures. One boy wrote a love note to a beloved support staff member, Ms. Kim. Another girl drew a geometric pattern in black, telling me that her dad thinks she’s good at drawing. She gave me the picture to take home. 

A week or two ago, when I pulled up at Laney, there was a police car in the parking lot, its doors flung open. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to involve a minivan that was stopped at an angle just outside of the school’s front windows. Once I got inside, I learned the school was on alert. “There’s a Code Yellow going on,” one of my young friends told me, before asking, with a tap on my shoulder, if I was okay.

It turns out that someone had dropped their kid off at school in a stolen car. The police confronted the parents in the parking lot, guns drawn, in full view of a kindergarten classroom. The kids never learned the details of this, I’m sure, thanks to the watchful oversight of Laney staff. No one seemed particularly upset, either.  

It was just another day. Another day in a district perpetually on the verge of being undone by neoliberal interventions, declining public investment and school choice escape hatches. Our schools are more racially and economically segregated than ever, whether they are district schools or quasi-private charters. (Now, place your bets as to who that benefits, to steal a line from Hamilton.)

On April 18, the Minneapolis school board responded to public protest by reinstating the jobs or employment status of seven district staffers who feel they were dismissed unfairly–for a variety of reasons that center on race and toxic working conditions. I shared the stories of some of these employees in previous blog posts, and wrote about the meeting’s outcome, too.

I don’t regret that. But I have tried to listen further, to the stories of district principals–who held their own come-to-Jesus meeting with board members last week–as well as to the staff who’ve been victimized by a system that often seems to be its own worst enemy. There are reams of anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion that MPS has an HR problem. Not everywhere, but in enough sites that some closer scrutiny of management should be a high priority. Is it?

There are some great principals in MPS; my own kids have attended schools led by competent, friendly, fair-minded administrators. It’s also important to acknowledge that the job description for principals has changed a lot in recent years, to encompass scores of box-checking and classroom micromanaging. (Dig into the RESET Education plan, for some background info.) Good relationships are not built through spreadsheets and scripted teacher observation forms.

This is failure by design, of course. MPS once served over 50,000 students–with one superintendent and maybe two or three associate superintendents helping out. Today, we have seven or eight associate superintendents for 36,000 students. Which sites, under which associate superintendents, continue to crop up as problematic? Does anyone have data on that?

Which aspects of the district’s strategic plan, written pro bono by McKinsey & Co. consultants in 2007, continue to undermine strong principals, teachers, support staff and students? (McKinsey & Co. is a global capitalism consulting firm, with close ties to business, civic and philanthropic leaders in the Twin Cities via the Itasca Project.

Accepting McKinsey & Company’s free strategic plan was a trap. It promised big things, including a never-reached 80 percent, district-wide proficiency rate on standardized tests by 2012. And it continues to dominate MPS’s plans and budgetary priorities, such as the recent attempt to balance the district’s budget on the backs of building engineers.  

Meanwhile, Minnesota legislators sit on a billion dollar budget surplusIf we want real change, maybe we have to start asking the right questions.

Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, in that the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations define social and economic policy. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, deleterious effects of government regulation, and so on, are the tenets of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and Education Reform, 2007

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