Category Archives: Uncategorized

Parents of Special Education Students Protest Minnesota’s Neo-Voucher Proposal

March 27, 2017

Minneapolis-based attorney Sarah McLaren should be forgiven for dissolving into tears while testifying at a Minnesota Education Policy Committee hearing in early February, since she had not planned on speaking out that day. Instead, she was on her way to work on February 9 when she heard a brief news report on public radio, detailing a new tax credit scholarship, or neo-voucher,” education bill that was moving through the state legislature.

“Right away,” she recalled over coffee recently, “I turned my car around, drove to the Senate Office Building and testified that day.” In a video recording of McLaren’s testimony, she can be seen dressed in a black and white speckled suit jacket, clutching a framed picture of her six-year old daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor, McLaren’s only child, has autism spectrum disorder; because of that, McLaren says, “it will always be more expensive to educate my daughter.” 

This realization is what compelled McLaren to make a detour to the Senate Office Building on February 9. Once there, McLaren says she “surprised everyone in the room” by delivering an unscripted, at times tearful rebuke of Republican representative Ron Kresha’s tax credit scholarship bill. Kresha’s bill, whose roots can be traced to similar, “cookie cutter” ALEC bills being proposed around the country, seeks to give wealthy individuals and corporations in Minnesota a tax break–up to $35 million, statewide–for donations to private school scholarship funds. These funds are then supposed to help lower (and middle) income students afford tuition payments. 

Proponents of this approach bristle at any obvious comparison to school voucher plans, which drain money directly out of a state’s general education fund–after tax funds have been collected. Vouchers have proven to be both unpopular and unsuccessful, leading school choice advocates to instead propose Kresha-like tax breaks that divert money from the general education fund before it is collected. Such schemes can then be considered voluntary “tax incentive plans,” rather than outright, distasteful voucher programs.

Either way, the public school funding pool would take a hit, while religious and private schools stand to benefit. While observing a January rally for the tax credit bill, I spoke with a rural Minnesotan who helps run a small Lutheran school. One reason he is so in favor of Kresha’s bill is competition from charter schools. Because charters are free, he explained to me, they are siphoning students from the Lutheran school’s already limited enrollment base. This taps into one reason religious schools tend to favor these tax credit scholarship schemes: survival.

Catholic schools in particular have been out front about how such diversions of public tax dollars could benefit their schools:

Enrollment in US Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s with more than 5 million students, and in the last 20 years, more than 1,500 Catholic schools have shuttered. Supporters say that without an infusion of funds – either in the form of vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs – the very future of Catholic education in this country is at risk.

“Catholic schools look to tax credits to save them,”  The Crux, 2015

But McLaren wasn’t drawn to the neo voucher issue because she is opposed to religious or private schools. Instead, she insists that expanding school choice schemes will leave children like hers behind. As an infant and toddler, McLaren’s daughter attended a private center near her home–a “well-regarded program,” McLaren recalls, that billed itself as being “experts in early childhood care and education.” Along the way, Eleanor’s as yet undiagnosed autism began to surface, through biting incidents and other behavior issues.

Around age three, Eleanor’s autism was identified, and it soon became clear that the private program was neither equipped, nor particularly interested, in adapting to her needs. McLaren remembers being called to an “urgent” meeting about Eleanor’s behavior, where she was told that the school “had to think of the other children.” Eleanor was biting other students and parents were not happy about it.

“It was distressing,” McLaren notes. “The focus was immediately on Eleanor as the problem, and nothing about the environment” at the school. The school did not seem invested in supporting Eleanor, and staff were perhaps puzzled by the girl’s behavior. “She seems to repeat our questions a lot,” they told McLaren–with little apparent awareness of how to work with a child with autism. The expectation seemed to be that it was up to Eleanor’s parents to “fix” her behavior. (McLaren believes these messages stigmatize special education, and may make families reluctant to speak out.)

McLaren then describes an up and down journey, of first getting Eleanor placed with a preschool teacher who had some autism experience. When that teacher left the school, it became clear that Eleanor was struggling. “She was overwhelmed,” McLaren says, and responded by “removing herself from the group and spending the whole day alone.” Soon, McLaren and her husband moved Eleanor to Fraser, a Richfield preschool and childcare center that provides services and support–including access to “typical” peers–for special needs children. (Chicago teacher and activist, Xian Franzinger Barrett, has written about how low-income students of color–without access to extra resources–stand to lose the most when public schools are underfunded.)

From there, Eleanor graduated to kindergarten and has been attending a public school in her suburban neighborhood. McLaren quickly asserts that, at both Fraser and Eleanor’s public school, the message has always been, “How can we support her?” In response, Eleanor is thriving. She is at or near grade level, thanks to what McLaren says is “generous support for mainstreaming.” 

That support, though, is expensive. Eleanor’s school provides her with extra personnel, skilled at working with special education students, and Eleanor has access to a variety of strategies that make her school day possible. McLaren says these strategies include “access to sensory tools (headphones, chewy, weighted vest), and breaks as needed. For example, at group time, Eleanor can sit in a child-sized rocking chair instead of on the floor with peers since that is difficult for her.” Eleanor is also allowed regular breaks from the classroom, including “trampoline jumps” in the school’s special education resource room.

Rather than an indulgence, McLaren calls these breaks “essential.” And seeing how Eleanor has benefitted from an inclusive, supportive environment has turned McLaren into a fighter. In January, McLaren watched Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s cringeworthy confirmation hearing, and was appalled by DeVos’s “stunning lack of knowledge about educating kids with different needs.” (DeVos infamously displayed little awareness of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects the needs of special education students.)

McLaren then knew she had to “get more public” with her concerns because private schools do not Image result for individualized education planhave to educate students like Eleanor. “Choice sounds good,” McLaren acknowledges, “but I don’t think people realize that private schools do the choosing.” She maintains that religious schools, for example, do not have to follow Minnesota’s Human Rights law, while private schools do not have to adhere to federal special education mandates. The fallout, McLaren fears, will be more segregation in education, with “high needs kids left behind” and public schools left with even fewer resources.

McLaren returned to the Capitol one week after her first, spontaneous shot at testifying against Kresha’s bill, and came armed with–again–Eleanor’s framed picture, as well as some support of her own. Flanking McLaren on February 16, when she spoke before the House Tax Committee, was a cohort of fellow parents of students with special needs, as well as representatives from special education advocacy groups like PACER.

If you’ve got a few minutes, and a handkerchief nearby, watch these parents and special education advocates stumble through their testimony, doing their best to be civil and resilient while pointing out what seems painfully obvious:

The children that need the resources most desperately in special education are those that will pay the price if you divert money away from public school resources. That’s why we speak against this.

–Don McNeil, PACER Center representative and parent of special needs students

Minnesota’s tax credit scholarship bill is currently in limbo. It sailed through various policy and finance committees, thanks to party-line votes, and may be included in an end of session omnibus bill. Governor Mark Dayton, however, has remained opposed to such “voucher-light” proposals.

*Some perspective from Texas, where similar bills have been proposed:

Proponents claim donations will help families pay their private school tuition and that will relieve the enrollment burden on public schools or provide access to good schools for disadvantaged students. That’s the sales pitch. In reality, the result is to hand tax dollars over to private schools, increasing the financial strain on public schools and possibly increasing local property taxes in the process to make up for lost funding.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

Opt Out Numbers in Minnesota High Schools Skyrocket

March 11, 2017

As testing season begins in full force across Minnesota, publicly available data from the state Department of Education indicates a striking trend: the number of high school juniors refusing to sit for the state and federally mandated MCA tests is growing–rapidly.

Sidebar: In order to qualify for federal Title funding, Minnesota is required to give annual, standardized tests (MCAs) to public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, for reading; grades 3-8 and 11 in math, and science in grades 5, 8 and once in high school (English Language Learners are given many additional ACCESS tests each year, K-12). Although the state is required to give the tests, parents and students in Minnesota have the right to refuse to participate in them.

The Monticello, MN schools recently canceled science in favor of MCA test prep

In 2016, 2,227 high school juniors opted out of the MCA tests statewide. That’s just a drop in the bucket, compared to the 55,975 students who did take it. But it is more than three times the number of eleventh grade students–694–who opted out of the MCAs in 2015. 

This is a startling jump, taking place in schools and cities as diverse as suburban St. Louis Park, rural Pine City and Minneapolis. (The examples below pertain only to the Math MCA tests for high school juniors.)

In 2016, ten Pine City juniors refused the MCA tests; that’s a small but significant bump up from the three students who refused the tests in 2015. At St. Louis Park High School in 2016, 66 juniors opted out. But in 2015, just one student refused the MCAs.

An eye-popping 209 juniors at Minneapolis’s Henry High School opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. That’s a huge leap from 2015, when just eleven students refused the tests. Only seven percent of Henry’s 1,100 students identify as white and eighty percent live in poverty, according to federal standards. This might help poke holes in the story that onlysuburban momsand white, wealthier kids are pushing the opt out movement. And, across town at Roosevelt High School, 98 juniors opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. Like Henry, Roosevelt is not a majority white school and almost seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over at South High School–Minneapolis’s largest and most diverse–so few students took the MCAs in 2016 that there are simply blank spaces on the Department of Education’s spreadsheet for the school. That’s because, when fewer than ten students take the tests, the data has to be blocked out for privacy reasons. In 2015, 306 students–or nearly ninety percent of eligible juniors–at South did not take the tests. (The city’s Washburn High also had 81 MCA math test refusals in 2016; in 2015, there were eleven.)

Minneapolis’s two smaller high schools–Edison and North High schools–had very few opt outs in 2016 and 2015 (0 at North, both years), while Southwest High School has had large and growing numbers of opt outs–191 in 2015 and 251 in 2016. High schools in St. Paul are also reporting an increase–often from zero up to double digits–in the numbers of students refusing the tests, but the opt out movement appears to have more legs in Minneapolis.

Point of confusion: In Minnesota, districts can set their own graduation requirements, and, reportedly, some are putting MCA scores on high school transcripts to indicate whether or not a student is “college and career ready.” A student’s MCA scores can also be used, per Minnesota statute, as part of a course grade or as a way to try to avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Students, however, still do not have to take the MCA tests (test refusal can be noted on a transcript as well). Most college-bound high school students undoubtedly choose to focus their energies on either the ACT or SAT test, even as more and more colleges are becoming “test optional.”

Districts in the metro area and beyond also reported large numbers of opt outs among eleventh graders in 2016. Examples: last year, Hopkins High School had 158 refusals, up from zero in 2015; Wayzata High School had a tiny number of opt outs in 2016–just 12, out of 786 eligible juniors–but that’s up from zero opt outs the year before. Blaine High School, a large, suburban school north of the Twin Cities, saw 100 MCA refusals in 2016; Burnsville High School, south of the Twin Cities, had 30.

Not much of a crowd–except when you consider that zero Burnsville students and only three Blaine juniors refused the MCAs in 2015.

This week, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on standardized testing in Minnesota. The report noted that the state spent $19.2 million on testing in 2016, with one-third of that paid for with federal dollars. Ninety percent of this tab went to the companies such as Pearson that produce the tests and help the state assess test score data. 

The auditor’s report revealed a number of problems with standardized testing in Minnesota, including the conclusion that the legislature has piled too many tasks and expectations on the MCA tests in particular. MCA scores are now expected to show proficiency on the state standards, as well as growth (through the addition of test questions that push students above or below grade level) and a student’s “college and career readiness.”

From the state report on standardized testing (page S-4):

The Legislature has required MDE to develop tests and report test scores in certain ways. Some of these requirements are ill-advised.

State law requires that the MCAs include questions above and below a student’s grade level. However, due to federal requirements, MDE has been unable to use these questions in calculating most of the test scores it reports. As a result, statewide tests have been lengthened for all students without much benefit.

Dolores Ramos, 16, right, joins dozens of Highland High School students in Albuquerque, N.M., as students staged a walkout Monday March 2, 2015, to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Albuquerque, New Mexico high school students; AP photo

State law also requires MDE to report a score based on the MCA describing each student’s progress toward career and college readiness. But such scores for elementary and middle school students are methodologically problematic. Projections extending far into the future have a high level of uncertainty, and some of them are likely to be wrong.

MCA tests scores are also used in teacher evaluations (per state requirement) and, in some districts, to evaluate principals, too. Another key finding from this report? Across the state, “Many principals and teachers do not feel prepared to interpret much of the testing data reported by MDE.”

In response to this, at a March 5 presentation of the auditor’s report, Republican state representative Sondra Erickson (who has served on ALEC’s education task force) suggested that perhaps teachers need more training in how to interpret test data.

If more students continue to refuse the tests, perhaps such further training will not be necessary. 

The level of testing nonparticipation among high school students in Minneapolis Public Schools has reached the point where it is no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of districtwide student learning.

–Office of the Legislative Auditor’s 2017 report on standardized testing in Minnesota (79)

Meanwhile in Minnesota: Lack of school counselors have experts worried,” as the state has no mandate to fund counselors or maintain a certain number per student.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you very much to those who have already donated!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

With Betsy DeVos in the background, whitewashing segregation and the Jim Crow era, the annual standardized testing season is here, ready to do its part to keep our schools separate and unequal. 

How’s that? Consider two local lessons in how the testing regime is propped up in our public schools on some pretty shaky ethics.

First, parents in the Becker, Minnesota school district recently received a jaw-dropping letter in their kids’ backpacks. The letter announced that the district would shortly be “adjusting (its) academic schedule,” by dropping–temporarily!–science and social studies classes in favor of an extra “Power Hour” of math and reading for each kid.

“Grade level teachers will work during this time to teach skills in the area of reading and math at your child’s instructional level,” the letter states, before assuring parents that district staff are “committed to working together to best meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Hmm. What theory of education or child development would suggest that the best needs of all kids would involve doubling down on math and reading test prep, to gin up scores on outsourced standardized tests made by for-profit corporations?

Here is the letter that was sent home:

Becker is a majority white, middle class, exurban district. Research shows that students in districts such as this often rake in the highest scores on standardized tests, and state education data for Becker backs this up. In 2015-2016, the Becker schools “surpassed the state average in every grade level for every test,” crowed a statement on the district’s website. What’s more, “most grade levels improved the number of students proficient in comparison to last year.” (That means they achieved “growth,” but don’t ask DeVos to explain any of this.)

But at what price? Replacing science and social studies with a super, extra fun Power Hour of reading and math does not seem like an ethical way to ensure dominance on top of the standardized test heap.

Parents in the Becker schools didn’t like it, either. A source tells me that as soon as the Power Hour letter hit home, parents loudly informed the district that they did not approve of their kids being given concentrated doses of test prep. In response, the district reinstated science and social studies (even though data showed there “would be a benefit to incorporating a ‘Power Hour’ of intensive instruction to our day”), and sent the following chagrined letter home:

 

I don’t know the opt out rates in Becker–the data does not appear to be easily available–but in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, a growing number of students are choosing not to take the annual MCA tests. This has been building for years, especially for high school students who are–surprisingly!–savvy enough to realize that the MCA tests are of little consequence to their lives and their futures. MCA test scores are not required for graduation, nor are they part of college admission decisions. In other words, they don’t really matter.

And that’s partly because everything else matters so much. In 2015, I interviewed a handful of students from Southwest High School about their decision to blow off the MCAs, and their answers were very revealing:

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

Here’s the ethics connection. In a February message sent to teachers at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, the school’s testing coordinator informed them that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) had recently added “encouraging parents or students to refuse the test” to its list of “unethical” test administration practices. This is the email sent to Southwest teachers:

Hello All,

The MCA testing window opens March 6th (overlapping with ACCESS, ACT & Make-up ACT administration) through May 5th.

Additional information will be provided in the next week or so with specifics on student testing dates, locations, proctor assignments, and other ways we can support each other in this effort.

To whet your appetite for that additional information, below are a few points regarding Parent Refusal Forms picked up from yesterday’s training session at The District.

  • MDE has added encouraging Opt Outs to the list of unethical practices in test administration.
  • Schools are expected to have a 95% participation rate to qualify for MMR funds.
  • To underscore the point, REA sent me the following message (highlights, theirs): 

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

The testing coordinator acknowledges that this message is being sent to Southwest teachers because “in the past SW has had a lot of opt outs.” And that must be stopped by threatening to withhold funds, apparently.

It is clear that we have built a whole industry around testing, as our schools have become more racially and economically segregated–partly because test scores are made public, allowing parents to “opt out” of schools with low test scores. And who is most likely to attend a school with low test scores? In Minnesota, like most other places, it is marginalized students of color living in underserved communities.

The more we double down on trying to force students and teachers to comply with standardized testing, the more, it seems, we avoid difficult conversations about ethical concerns around segregation and the unequal (current and historic) allocation of resources, not to mention the fallacy of reducing educational achievement to multiple choice tests. 

Ceresta Smith is a Florida-based teacher and leader in the Opt Out movement (we met a few years ago at an education justice conference). On Monday morning, after Moonlight was awkwardly awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, this is what she wrote on Facebook:

Big ups to Moonlight!!!🤗These folks came through arts magnet programs in majority Black community schools with majority Black faculties composed of great teachers! Big up to the arts!!! Down with culturally biased worthless testing! Those tests do not make award winning art and artists!!! The teachers and students just put Miami in the big league for talent for writing, acting, and sharing truth about growing up poor and gay! Wow, big task for schools, Miami Northwestern High and Norland Middle, which a fraudulent grading system likes to label as less than.

In our questionably ethical pursuit of test scores, silence, secrecy and compliance, are we missing key conversations about what students, parents, teachers actually want from our schools?

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

DeVos Didn’t Start the Fire

February 6, 2017

Betsy DeVos is everywhere, filling up Twitter feeds and Facebook sidebars with links to the latest, most outrageous evidence of her desperation to become our next secretary of education. 

Ed Patru, Friend of Betsy DeVos

The tabs on my computer are cluttered with articles describing DeVos’s criminally incompetent push to make our schools great again through unfettered privatization plans. She can be linked to ALEC, fraud and a personal disdain for public schools. She has created opportunities for scammers who want to make a “boatload of money” on public ed without the hassle of accountability. She has a prolific Friend of Betsy© in Ed Patru, and, when that is not enough, she has provided a way for other people to get paid to shill for her.

In our new, enticing world of alternative facts, DeVos will most likely be confirmed tomorrow, as the search for one more–just one more–“Republican with integrity” appears to have come to a Dark Money dead end

But DeVos just might be the rock bottom this country needs to hit, in terms of our dependence on plutocrat-driven school privatization schemes. Her preference for an unregulated, unrestrained market of publicly funded private and religious schools, as well as charter schools, has embarrassed even her fellow billionaire buyers of influence and school choice–Eli Broad and Arthur Rock

For years, Eli Broad’s name has been synonymous with the expedited take down of our nation’s public school system. Using wads of cash, and leaked secret plans, Broad has unleashed anti-union charter schools (high performing, always high performing) and a superintendent training academy for those with little to no background in public education. People like Betsy DeVos, for example. 

Rock, on the other hand, has occupied a quieter place in education reform while still wielding a DeVos-like level of undue influence. He is a venture capitalist from California who sits on Teach for America’s board of directors, has funded a sketchy chain of “blended learning” charter schools (Rocketship) and done his best to upend local school board elections around the country. In Minneapolis, for example, Rock has donated money to pro-reform school board candidates with connections to Teach for America. (And though Al Franken flayed DeVos for her ignorance around key education issues, he has also employed Teach for America alums as staffers–something Rock has funded)

Rock is an active philanthropist in education reform. From 2006 to 2008, Rock contributed $16.5 million to Teach for America. He also donated $1.5 million to Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the country’s largest network of charter schools.

–Angel Au-Yeung, Forbes, February 2017

If these guys don’t approve of DeVos, then we know something’s up. What separates DeVos from Rock and Broad, is, perhaps, her religious fervor, accompanied by a zest for vouchers. Vouchers, of course, would–in an idealized, free market world–make private schools eligible for public funding. In other words, they could threaten the market share Broad and Rock are trying to carve out through the expansion of charter school networks. (Beware! Vouchers are morphing into scholarship and “tax credit” bills.)

To be fair, Broad has also objected to DeVos’s devil-may-care embrace of for-profit charter schools, something Broad says he abhors. In a February 1 letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Charles Schumer, Broad touched on the most embarrassing moments of DeVos’s confirmation hearing. “We must have a Secretary of Education who believes in public education,” Broad wrote, before mentioning DeVos’s less than artful dodge on the question of whether or not schools should be gun-free zones.

In short, DeVos has created an opening for the likes of Broad and Rock, allowing them to position themselves as the moderate voice of education reform–despite their track records. DeVos is the unflattering mirror image of venture edu-philanthropists, and lurks as a no holds barred representative of the worst possible outcome (see Detroit) of their market-based reform plans.Image result for mirror mirror on the wall

Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, was not ideologically far from DeVos, yet stood as a kinder, gentler, Democratic version of her. He did not offend the way she does, but he should have. Or, to paraphrase Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech at the Congressional Progressive Caucus, our moment of crisis did not begin with Betsy DeVos’s nomination. We were already in crisis. 

Education policy has been stuck in an Orwellian war on the “achievement gap” for decades, while public resources have mostly shrunk and segregation has increased. DeVos didn’t create that, though she has certainly capitalized on it. If her confirmation goes through as expected, the public–and policy makers–should capitalize on our awakened understanding of the cost of putting billionaires on a mission in charge of our schools.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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?”

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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.

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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! 

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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.”

 

No Equity Assessment, No Problem? Minneapolis Schools Ponders a Major Policy Shift

Monday, December 12, 2016

On Tuesday, December 13, at a regularly scheduled meeting, the Minneapolis school board is set to vote on whether or not to approve a radical overhaul of the policy manual that guides its work. This vote will be the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of revision efforts, started by policy committee chair, Josh Reimnitz. 

In November, Reimnitz lost his bid for a second term on the school board. Instead, his District 4 seat will be taken over by newcomer Bob Walser. But, before he departs, the board will have a chance to either approve, scrap or delay a vote on the complex policy manual rewrite that Reimnitz initiated. 

First, a little background info: Reimnitz’s still-viable 2016 campaign website says he undertook the policy manual makeover because the current one is so outdated and cumbersome that the board “can’t tell if we are in compliance of our own policies!” The current manual originated in the 1960’s (Dark Ages!) and is almost as long as War and Peace, apparently. Reimnitz’s work, with input from his fellow policy committee members, has whittled that tome down to around twenty pages. That is an accomplishment worth paying attention to, even as it raises questions about what, exactly, is being put through the shredder.

Reimnitz’s redo is based on the Carver Policy Governance Model, a seldom used approach (as far as school boards go) that significantly streamlines and limits what a board can or should do. The goal with the Carver model is to have boards focus more exclusively on what gets accomplished, rather than how it gets accomplished. Basically, any Carver-guided board is supposed to focus on the ENDS and not the MEANS. (The all-caps come from the Carver website.)

It seems logical to assume that Reimnitz’s attempt to move the Minneapolis school board in a Carver-shaped direction fits well with the district’s current strategic plan, Acceleration 2020. This plan includes the corporate catchphrase that “schools are the unit of change,” which implies they should be largely left alone to govern themselves–as long as student achievement and graduation rates are increasing. (This concept is not well-defined, however, in the plan.)

Acceleration 2020, is supposed to help free the district from burdensome, bureaucratic over-management. Switching the school board to a Carver, Policy Governance model is supposed to do the same thing. Here is a quick overview of how, in my understanding of the Carver approach to board governance:

  • The Carver model is designed to be “absolutely” hierarchical, by offering greater deference–and greater responsibility–to the superintendent.
  • Board members hire the superintendent and hold him or her accountable to agreed upon ENDS and ethical guidelines, but that’s pretty much it. 
  • The board should act as a whole, and not try to win influence for pet projects or separate, constituent-driven concerns. Board members should also not, in the Carver view, provide “advice and instruction” to district staff. This would be interpreted as board interference with the superintendent’s authority.
  • The board should be seen as operating with “one voice.” Any board vote–even a 5-4 decision–is to be taken as a mandate by the superintendent. Board members who disagree with an outcome should not try to “influence organizational direction.”
  • The board should simplify by focusing only on the “whole of the system,” and not the “parts” that make it work. The day-to-day management or MEANS by which the district operates are not to be (within reason) in the purview of board members.

The Carver method carries with it a strong distaste for “micromanagement” by board members, and is designed to create a cleaner system, with the superintendent being given greater power to make decisions:

Board members should not have their hands in micromanaging, instructing, and otherwise interfering with the proper role of administration. There is also no place for what Carver terms “sabotage,” (Carver) the purposeful undermining of a board’s decision by an individual board member who has a personal agenda that he will not relinquish and which the board deems has negative effects on the organization (Carver, “Remaking Governance,” 27-28).

This seems to fly in the face of the reason Minneapolis has a nine-member board. In 2008, at the urging of Minneapolis state legislator, Jim Davnie, Minneapolis voters passed the “ABC” referendum, expanding the school board from seven to nine members, with the majority representing various city districts. Previously, board members were all citywide candidates, elected to “govern the system as a whole,” as Pam Costain, then a Minneapolis board member, put it in 2008.

So, under a Carver-guided Minneapolis school board policy manual, board members will be strongly discouraged, one assumes, from advocating for issues and concerns in their specific corners of the city. This switch in focus would put the board in a strange position, since the November election swept in three new board members–Kerry Jo Felder, Ira Jourdain, and Bob Walser–who were elected to represent three distinct areas of the city. These new board members won’t be seated until January, 2017. Therefore, if the board votes on December 13 to approve the new policy manual, without input from these incoming board members, will these board members now be expected to act as citywide representatives?

Maybe this would be the best way to run the board, but who has determined this? The adoption of this new policy manual has not been put to the public (widely), and most of the work on it has been done by a small group of board members who serve on the policy committee. There have been, to my knowledge, no district-wide, well attended community meetings about the new thinking behind the policy manual overhaul. 

The Carver Policy Governance model is intriguing, but not intuitive. It is complicated and centered around a distinct theoretical approach to board leadership, intended to give as wide a berth as possible to the superintendent or CEO of an organization. In so doing, the Carver approach has board members create ethics-minded, big picture limitations for the superintendent that are spelled out in the negative.

  • Here’s one example, from the most currently available draft of the new policy manual: “…the Superintendent shall not cause or allow MPS to…Permit MPS families to be unaware of: What shall be expected and what shall not be allowed in and from classes, courses, activities or other services.”

I can imagine that families without a great deal of grounding in the legalese of board policy would have a hard time grasping what the shift to the Carver model is all about, especially if English is not their first language. It also appears that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment has been done regarding the proposed policy manual, even though, in 2013, the district agreed to do so for “all future policies”:

Minneapolis Public Schools is committed to identifying and correcting policies, practices, programs and procedures that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all its forms. In order to apply corrective measures, MPS leaders are required to apply the Equity & Diversity Impact Assessment to all future policies, practices, programs and procedures that have a significant impact on student learning and resource allocation.

Why, then, would board members vote on a major policy shift (adopting a Carver governance model) without first seeing an Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment?

Another concern raised by those who have more closely tracked the policy committee’s work on this is that the Carver model concentrates an awful lot of power in the superintendent’s hands. There may be advantages to this, and the concept is worthy of public discussion, but it also represents a significant philosophical shift for the Minneapolis schools. The new policy manual has the potential, for example, to put labor negotiations solely in the hands of the district, while, previously, the board has shared responsibility for that. Similarly, as I understand it, the proposed policy manual has dropped the board’s requirement that the district pay “fair wages” to its employees. Instead, the superintendent would be trusted with these actions, and then held to how well they support district “results,” or ENDS.

Further, in an era of privatization, diminishing public resources and the pressures of the market-based education reform movement, the proposed policy manual includes this eye-catching directive:

MPS is dedicated to involving and engaging partners who are committed to helping MPS accomplish the Board-approved Results objectives. As such, the Superintendent shall neither cause nor allow MPS to withhold pertinent information, excluding individual student and staff data, from external partners or individuals.

Without limiting the above, the Superintendent shall not cause or allow MPS to avoid partnering and information-sharing on topics such as resource allocation, student achievement outcome summaries, or major shifts in practice.

“The Superintendent shall not withhold pertinent information from external partners or individuals?” Hmm. With the privately funded, privately run Minnesota Comeback lurking around the edges of the district, hoping to create 30,000 “sector-neutral,” “rigorous and relevant seats by 2025,” this policy provision should be subjected to further public debate. Minnesota Comeback, which is part of a national, billionaire-fueled education reform network called Education Cities, has the potential–and the unfettered bank account–to seriously disrupt the collective agency of the district. (The group’s ability to pick winners and losers is beginning to show up.)

Should the school board’s new policy manual simply give privately run entities like Minnesota Comeback the keys to the store, through a further concentration of power in the hands of a superintendent? 

This largely corporate model of governance is being marketed by Carver and many who have trained under him to the non-corporate world of public education. Is Policy Governance viable for district boards of education and the administration of public schools? An examination of the history, philosophy, tenets, marketing, and practice of Policy Governance in public education reveal that Carver’s model is not consistent with the principles of democratic-republicanism, does not fit the political realities of the American experience, and is operating without the understanding or consent of the public at large. However, if one wishes to see the end of local control, the erosion of democratic practices, and more power shifting to authorities in far away places, then Policy Governance has much to offer.

–Bobby Chandler, teacher and researcher. 2007

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

Building Bridges at Lucy Laney School

December 7, 2016

On a recent weekday morning,  the air inside the third grade science classroom at Lucy Laney School was electric. We’re building bridges today! Twenty-two pairs of eyes watched with intrigue as their teacher, Mr. Teigland, demonstrated the day’s goal: construct a bridge out of plastic connecting pieces and then pile textbooks on top of it to see how strong it is.

With a mixture of delight, devotion and distraction, the kids clustered together at small tables in groups of two, three and four. They waited–some more calmly than others–for Mr. Teigland to plop a box of red, blue, yellow and white bridge-building pieces in front of them. Then, the design work began.

Some savvy students found the sample bridge Mr. Teigland had put together, and set about building their own version of it. Others dug in to the plastic pieces without a plan, stitching together impossibly long or lopsided constructions sure to collapse with the slightest nudge from an unwitting classmate.

Soon, the bridges were being positioned across a gap between two tables, to see if they were strong enough to pass the strength test. Could the bridges hold at least three textbooks?

Not many could, at least initially. Trial and error–an essential life skill–was put to use, with endless reconfiguring of height, length and weight distribution. Some kids rose to the challenge with dedication; others collapsed more readily, like the bendy bridges they were building.

Success came from teamwork and tenacity–skills that not every third grader in Mr. Teigland’s morning class is in possession of (yet). Maturity varies as much as their height, weight and dispositions. Some kids couldn’t resist chatting, bragging and poking their neighbor’s emerging creations, while others quietly dug into the day’s work, understanding what was being asked of them and how to make it happen (within the forty-five minutes or so allotted to the project). Some people are fond of calling young children scholars, but, in my view, that’s too stuffy a term. They are messy creators, eager explorers, and babbling brooks flowing off course, into fields not yet conquered.

These kids need room to move, real work to do, and the patient guidance of adults and peers. That last one can be hard to stick to. When everyone is present, there are twenty-five kids in Mr. Teigland’s room, which he manages with his right-hand man, an associate educator named Mr. Johnson. Two adults, twenty-five kids. This ratio would be a dream scenario for many teachers I know, but it is still an unfortunate overload, for adults and kids alike. (The challenge involved in coaxing, corralling, convincing and creatively inspiring a group of young children to move in one direction is awe-inspiring.) 

Twins! Teigland and Johnson

There is no bridge connecting these kids to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education. If DeVos’ nomination wins approval–and no one should assume that it won’t–then the market-based education reform movement will be unmasked and unleashed. Kids who attend high poverty, “failing” schools like Lucy Laney will suffer the most, as they have in Detroit. There, armed with millions of dollars, DeVos has applied guerilla-like pressure to the city’s school system, hammering it into a million shattered pieces.

Here is a recent overview from the Detroit Free Press:

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

DeVos promises a frightening plunge towards a moneyed, fundamentalist takeover of our public schools, but will it be worse than the kinder, gentler face of the market-based reform movement that so many Democrats and self-proclaimed progressives have clung to for years? For evidence, take a look at Democrat Cory Booker, a highly touted senator from New Jersey. Booker, who was on Hillary Clinton’s VP shortlist, sat on the board of DeVos’ Alliance for School Choice and frequently, enthusiastically appeared at the DeVos-run (and Walton/WalMart funded) American Federation for Children policy events.

In other words…

This is true in Minneapolis, too, where politicians and civic figures with long-standing progressive reputations have lined up behind ed reform, shilling for such “transformational” things as charter schools, choice and Teach for America

Meanwhile, in a brightly lit classroom, on a gray Minneapolis morning, there are bridges to be built.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated; your support is much appreciated.

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

Feeling Badly About the Election Results? Check Out Minnesota

November 20, 2016

We do not yet know who will serve as Secretary of Education in Donald Trump’s administration, but the rumor mill is spinning with names sure to cause consternation for public school proponents everywhere. 

CNN’s shortlist of candidates for the top federal education job includes infamous education reform advocate Michelle Rhee, along with controversial New York City charter school magnate Eva Moskowitz. Former Trump rival Ben Carson was also briefly on this list. Progressive groups have argued that Carson should not be considered for the job partly because he has “railed against the theory of evolution” and categorized the push for LGBT rights as a “Marxist plot.”

But in Minnesota, education activists have reason to feel hopeful. 

Minneapolis students protest Trump, Dakota Access Pipeline

Minneapolis students protest Trump, Dakota Access Pipeline

In late October, a judge dismissed a case brought against Minnesota’s teacher tenure and seniority layoff rules, saying the suit had “failed to establish a link between low academic achievement and the due process provided by the tenure laws.” The suit was part of former journalist Campbell Brown’s attempts, through a mysteriously funded group called Partnership for Educational Justice, to launch campaigns against teacher tenure rules in several states. Called a “conservative legal group” by the online watchdog outlet, Media Matters, the Partnership is described as part of an “education reform echo chamber,” where a small group of very wealthy funders—including Brown—continually promote a pro-business, pro-privatization agenda.

In 2014, Brown’s Partnership group filed a lawsuit against things such as “quality-blind teacher layoffs” in New York. That suit remains unresolved. (Reinforcing claims of an education reform echo chamber, Brown is also the money and vision behind an online education news site, the 74million.org, that reports on the cases the Partnership group brings forth.)

In April, 2016, the Partnership spread its campaign to Minnesota, claiming that the state’s tenure laws provide teachers with “lifetime job protection after only three years,” and that such protections deny students equal access to “highly effective” teachers. The lawsuit collapsed under its own weight, as state education officials immediately pushed back on the idea that tenure means teachers can’t be fired (they can, but with due process protections in place).

Another sticking point? Minnesota, like many states, is grappling with a serious teacher shortage, undercutting the lawsuit’s claim that the most “effective” teachers are continually being given pink slips. Further, the state of Minnesota’s motion to dismiss the case, filed in July, 2016, noted that the plaintiffs failed to show that eliminating tenure would somehow give rise to an exceptional education system. How do we know this? Just look at Minnesota’s charter schools, the motion advised. Most teachers working in charter schools are non-unionized, and lack tenure, yet charters are “disproportionately represented” among Minnesota’s lowest performing schools. Jesse Stewart, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, promised an appeal.

Just days after the lawsuit was dismissed, the November 8 election took place. Four seats were open on the Minneapolis school board, and a slate of union-endorsed candidates pushed through to victory, beating back two incumbents. One of the incumbents, Josh Reimnitz, is a Teach for America alum who was first elected to the city’s school board in 2012, riding a wave of outside reform money. Back then, Reimnitz’s campaign was buoyed by close to $40,000 in donations. By 2014, that amount seemed like it came from a kid’s piggy bank fund, as local education reform interests raised over $275,000 in campaign funds from sources such as former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

The outside cash didn’t flow into Minneapolis this time, perhaps because the 2014 deluge bought mixed results for reformers. Still, in a climate of anti-tenure lawsuits and calls for turning city school districts into New Orleans-style “recovery” zones, the fact that four union—and Democrat—backed candidates prevailed is a development worth taking comfort in. Additionally, a suburban Minneapolis Republican state legislator, David Hann, lost his seat. In 2015, Hann floated the idea that the Minneapolis schools—with or without community input—should be broken into six separate districts, free of state mandates. In a poetic turn, Hann’s senate seat will now be filled by Democrat Steve Cwodzinski, a retired high school civics teacher. 

New legislator, Steve Cwodzinski

New legislator, Steve Cwodzinski

On November 8, Minneapolis voters also overwhelmingly approved a referendum that equals 13 percent of the Minneapolis Public Schools operating budget. Without the referendum, the district would have been forced to operate on a threadbare shoestring. With the referendum, it can continue to meet the needs—in a time of shrinking state-level funding—of over 36,000 students from a constantly expanding rainbow of backgrounds. There are the Trump-dreaded refugees and immigrants, from Somalia, Karen, Mexico, and points in between, as well as white, middle class kids who only speak English, and a historic, predominantly African-American high school, North High, that almost closed in 2010 but is thriving today. (Not to be missed: Minneapolis South High School’s student newspaper, The Southerner, and its ongoing take on the election.)

Close to twenty percent of the district’s students qualify for special education services. Over sixty percent of them live in poverty, according to federal guidelines. In July, a Minnesota court declined to dismiss a desegregation lawsuit that alleges, in part, that school choice schemes have led to separate and unequal schools throughout the state. How a Trump administration will affect these deep-seated issues is not clear. For now, pro-public school activists in Minnesota have reason to feel victorious.

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