Category Archives: Uncategorized

Minneapolis’s Segregated Charter Schools Score a Windfall

October 9, 2017

On September 28, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it would give a handful of states, including Minnesota, an “additional $253 million in grants to expand charter schools,” in order to spur on school choice–an education reform strategy long embraced by Democrats, Republicans and wealthy financiers. 

Windfall!

In the announcement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos referenced Minnesota, where the nation’s first charter school was authorized in 1991. With this new influx of federal money, Minnesota’s burgeoning school choice market will receive a $23 million dollar shot in the arm. The bulk of this taxpayer-generated cash will go to the Minnesota Department of Education, while another $1 million will go directly to Minneapolis’s Hiawatha Academies charter school chain.

Such announcements are often accompanied by cheerful talk of innovation and choice. The new federal funding is all about “seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them,” according to DeVos. But this new funding will also support Minnesota’s increasingly segregated public and charter school landscape, as well as an exodus of money and students from union-staffed districts. (Charter school teachers and staff are mostly non-unionized, in Minnesota and beyond.)

Segregated Schools Get a Boost 

Hiawatha Academies is a perfect example of this. The charter school chain serves a population of students that is almost exclusively Latino. Public education records show, for example, that ninety-three percent of HIawatha Academies’ Morris Park students are Latino. The neighborhood it sits in, however, is seventy-seven percent white

Overall, Hiawatha Academies’ test scoresprized by reformers as the measure of school success–have dropped significantly in recent years. 

Hiawatha Academies has several other schools in the southern half of Minneapolis and is slated to open a big, brand-new high school in 2018. This school, Hiawatha Collegiate High School, currently serves 105 students in a former Minneapolis public school site. Eighty-three percent of the students are Latino; again, this is an aberration when the neighborhood’s demographics are considered. Recently, Minneapolis’s Planning Commission approved Hiawatha’s plans to expand the high school, with a target enrollment of over 700 students.

This is less about innovation and more about grabbing market share from the Minneapolis Public Schools. Hiawatha Academiesexpansion  plan makes this clear: “Our goal is that by 2024, more than 2,000 scholars – 5 percent of all Minneapolis school children – will attend a Hiawatha Academies school.” The path to expansion has been paved through unnaturally segregated schools and loads of outside money–including extensive financial support from the WalMart fueled Walton Family Foundation–and now, an injection of $1 million from the federal Department of Education.

Juicy Incentive Packages Lure Funders

Hiawatha Academies’ new high school will also be funded by private investors (including several corporations) who will benefit from a New Market Tax Credit. This tax credit, started in the Clinton administration and intended to boost development in “underserved” areas, has provided a “gravy train to fat city” for charter school investors, as Forbes magazine writer Addison Wiggin put it in a 2013 article. Wiggin describes the charter school market as “booming,” thanks to investments from “bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors” eager to cash in on the New Market Tax Credit.

In 2010, this tax credit was explored in-depth by journalist Juan Gonzalez. Writing for the New York Daily News, Gonzalez found that investing in new charter schools has become incredibly lucrative. Not only do investors stand to gain a tax credit worth up to 39 percent after seven years, thanks to the New Market program, but they can also earn interest on the money they’ve invested, since it is done in the form of a loan. Gonzalez noted that the New Market Tax Credit can also be tacked onto other “federal tax credits, like historic preservation or job creation….” Hiawatha’s new Collegiate High School will be located in a historic former bottling plant in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood.

All told, this adds up to a very juicy incentive package when it comes to the proliferation of charter schools in urban areas. Investors in HIawatha Academies’ new high school have put up $5 million in funding through the New Market Tax Credit program. In order to rake in enough per pupil funds to make this project sustainable over time, the school will need to rapidly grow its enrollment to the projected capacity of nearly 800 students. 

Push for Privatization

The corporate and government-sponsored expansion of charter schools is less about student success and more about pushing privatized, market forces onto public institutions. A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article documented the drain charter schools are imposing on the city’s increasingly cash-strapped and underfunded public school district. In “Students in Flight,” reporters Beena Raghavendran and MaryJo Webster sized up the situation this way: “Minneapolis Public Schools is the biggest loser in Minnesota’s robust school-choice environment, surrendering more kids to charter schools and other public school options than any other district.”

Pitting privately managed, publicly (and privately) funded charter schools against public school districts creates a market of winners and losers–especially when the charter schools are allowed to serve niche populations. There is further evidence of this on the state education department’s website. There, readers will find a list of charter schools deemed “high quality  and worthy of replication. Included on this list are highly segregated schools like Twin Cities International Elementary School.

Publicly available data shows that this “international” school, located in Minneapolis, has a student population that is 100 percent Black/African-American (18 percent of Minneapolis’s overall population is identified as Black, according to recent census data). From the school’s website, it seems clear that it serves Minneapolis’s large Somali community, with only two percent of its students requiring special education services. That is far less than the special education rate of 15 percent within the Minneapolis Public Schools. (Special education remains an expensive, underfunded proposition for districts, like Minneapolis, that serve a bigger percentage of students with higher needs.)

School Choice Leads to Resegregation

Instead of remedying the historic and ongoing problem of racially and economically isolated neighborhoods and public schools, federal and local support for charter schools is exacerbating the situation. Research–like that of New York Times education reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells us that segregated schools often remain separate and unequal for students of color. In the Twin Cities, an increase in segregated schools has also meant white students are being educated in public and charter schools with abnormally high percentages of white, wealthier students. Nevertheless, several of these schools–including Twin Cities German Immersion and Nova Classical Academy–are lauded on the state department of education’s website for being “high quality” charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are struggling to keep up–especially in a time when public funding for education has dwindled significantly in Minnesota. Some might call this disaster capitalism, with public entities being weakened over time, in order to create an opportunity to reconstruct the education landscape in favor of privatized, niche (segregated) charter schools that sometimes attract wealthy investors, but often fail to provide a better education for marginalized students.

In an op-ed response to the Star Tribune’s portrayal of Minneapolis as the “biggest loser” in the school choice market, University of Minnesota education professor Nicola Alexander offered a cautionary message. While expressing sympathy for parents and students who don’t want to be left “feeling stuck in schools that do not serve their needs,” Alexander pokes a hole in the idea that school choice schemes are somehow without consequence.

The proliferation of charter schools in urban areas provides an end run around “broader social factors, like poverty, that ailed many of these communities,” Alexander writes. Further, instead of tackling the whole, state and federal policy has fallen “firmly on the side of mechanisms that equated choice with empowerment and school systems with markets.” But, of course, she notes, “markets are not always fair.”

This is not a concept that has bothered Betsy DeVos, either in her home state of Michigan, where she pushed for accountability-free charter schools, or in her new role as federal education secretary. One of the Trump administration’s first action items for the Department of Education, under DeVos, was to cancel an Obama-era program designed to promote school integration. With this latest announcement of more funding for charter schools, states like Minnesota are being pushed further into a market-based, partially privatized education system.

A condensed version of this post was originally published on the Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

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Minneapolis Protester to School Board Members: “You are Trash”

August 9, 2017

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.

The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students. 

Image result for ed graff

Ed Graff

Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?). 

Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.

“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers. 

In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis. 

This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs. 

As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.

“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon. 

With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car. 

Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.

This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.

At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”

If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):

I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate. 

Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.

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Minneapolis Southwest High School Investigation Leads to Administrative Shake Up

August 2, 2017

“We look forward to appointing these new assistant principals as quickly as possible.”

With that, Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, Cecillia Saddler, confirmed rumors swirling through the district’s Southwest High School community: when school starts up again in August, the school will be without three of its four administrators. In an email sent to parents and staff on August 1, Saddler informed them that assistant principals Sue Mortensen and Brian Nutter are “leaving the Southwest community.” 

This notice comes on the heels of the surprise July 28 announcement that Southwest’s longtime (and high profile) principal, Bill Smith, is retiring–a year earlier than most people expected. Mortensen, according to Saddler’s email, is also retiring while Nutter–a young, Roosevelt High School graduate–has been moved to an administrative role in the district’s Davis Center headquarters. 

Bill Smith in his Southwest office

This news sent shock waves through the community, leaving parents and staff to wonder what has caused all three of these administrators to suddenly exit the school. Only Tara Fitzgerald, an assistant principal new to both Southwest and the administrative tasks of a large high school, will be returning to the school this fall. Saddler’s email gives no indication what, if anything, has caused Smith and Mortensen to suddenly retire, and Nutter to be moved elsewhere.

It is known, however, that an internal investigation has taken place at the school, although MPS officials have yet to share this information with the community. It is believed that the investigation began in 2015, before current superintendent, Ed Graff, took the helm. The fallout from the investigation appears to have included this last-minute administrative shake up at Southwest, a high school that consistently ranks high for both academics and community support.

On July 31, Southwest staff and parents gathered for an impromptu meeting to discuss the loss of the school’s administrative team. Among the concerns outlined by supporters was the level of upheaval this is expected to cause for the school and its students, as the August 28 start date rises on the calendar. Letting go of Smith and Mortensen seemed inevitable for those gathered, yet a desire to bring Nutter back to the school was expressed. He had been given the key tasks of managing both the school’s budget (which is buoyed by a private school-like foundation, in the face of shrinking district dollars) and schedules. And he has been instrumental, some said, in building relationships with students.

The fact that Nutter was responsible for these fundamental aspects of running a large high school led many to believe that he was being tapped to take over for Smith upon his eventual retirement. Why, then, is he being moved from the school?

Anyone looking for answers in Saddler’s email will be left wanting. Also, parents and staff seeking protection from district decision-making via the school’s “autonomous,” Community Partnership School status have thus far been disappointed. One parent assumed that the school, thanks to its carefully crafted, independent “by-laws,” would be able to now choose its own administrative team.

Not so fast, she was told. Those Community Partnership School by-laws are not valid unless they’ve been ratified by the district, and they haven’t. The Community Partnership School ballyhoo appears to have been a flash in the pan, anyway, as many expected. It was a project of previous interim Superintendent Michael Goar and former teachers union boss, Lynn Nordgren. Both are gone, and the “self-governed” Community Partnership School agreement they put in place just a few years ago–selling it as the solution to the achievement gap, of course–is on its way out. (SeeAll That Glitters: Top Down Change in MPS.“)

Saddler’s email does make it clear, however, that the community will be invited to help select replacement assistant principals in the next few weeks, although any final hiring decisions will remain in Superintendent Graff’s hands. Whether or not the reappointment of Brian Nutter is possible remains to be seen.

Southwest consistently ranks as one of Minnesota’s most successful high schools, based on its relatively high four-year graduation rates (hovering at or above the 80 percent mark for most student groups), its strong IB program and the amount of high level course offerings available. The school is whiter and wealthier than any other Minneapolis public high school (just over fifty percent of students are white), and sits in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. Still, it draws students from across the city and remains a school of choice for many–as evidenced by the looming, suburban style expansion the school recently underwent. (A contentious expansion at that!)

Smith is known throughout the district for being a non-stop booster of the school and is famous for showing up at countless events dressed in the school’s purple and white colors. He has an inside baseball reputation for being a tough administrator who has successfully stood between the district and the school for years (my 2014 interview with him regarding Focused Instruction, another short-lived district initiative, was telling). 

The IB approach tends to be more application, or outcome focused, where Focused Instruction is more of a skill set that promotes a right or wrong answer. Both methods are standards-based, but those of us who practice IB believe it is a holistic approach to living and learning. IB practitioners are interested in self-mindedness and collaboration.

–Bill Smith on his preference for the IB method

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Too Overworked to Attend Your Kid’s Conference? Don’t Worry! We Can “Navigate” That

June 26, 2017

On June 27, three different parent and community education organizing events will take place in Minneapolis, offering a seeming embarrassment of riches for those tracking education reform in this city. What to expect? Here’s a look at what’s going down in Minneapolis tomorrow afternoon and evening.

Too strapped to attend a parent-teacher conference? Don’t worry! Minnesota Comeback and EdNavigator have got you covered.

Minnesota Comeback, a local anchor in the billionaire-funded, Tennessee-based Education Cities network, is hosting a Coalition Convening at 4:30 p.m. on June 27, and parents are invited to attend. The guest of honor will be the New Orleans group, EdNavigator–a puzzling outlet that appears to offer to attend parent-teacher conferences on behalf of New Orleans hotel workers (largely non-unionized) that can’t afford to take time off work to do so. 

This group probably won’t get a mention during EdNavigator’s presentation.

At least that’s the impression I have gotten from a PR report on EdNavigator’s work, published by the Carnegie Reporter (a newsletter of sorts dedicated to highlighting the Carnegie Foundation’s efforts.) The Carnegie Foundation is one of EdNavigator’s sponsors, so, naturally, the report is a positive one, full of stories of parents too tired or overwhelmed to independently advocate for their children in New Orleans’ choice-only edu-landscape.

To combat this problem (but not remedy the poor, non-unionized working conditions, apparently), some area hotels have commissioned EdNavigator to provide “Navigators” for their employees. Parents agree to give full access to their child’s school records to EdNavigator, which in turn can attend school conferences on the parent’s behalf, and otherwise act as a coach around parenting and education issues. Also, the EdNavigators can step in when schools (almost all charter, in New Orleans) may have “good intentions” but simply might not understand the “‘ins and outs, such as what it’s like for a mother who is working two jobs.”

The schools are cast as the bad guys in the EdNavigator narrative. They do awful things such as “demand parents drop everything and show up,” or force parents to “flip their lids” in order to get attention. This undoubtedly hits a nerve, as high quality, consistent and equitable parent and community engagement is lacking for many school districts. But employers in this EdNavigator story seem to bear no responsibility for the economic conditions of these too-overwhelmed-to-advocate parents. Gotta work two or three jobs to make it? Don’t worry! We’ll pay EdNavigator to go to school conferences for you! 

Why not just pay employees a living wage so that they can fully participate in their own kids’ lives? Because EdNavigator, like the education “news” outlets that cover it glowingly, has received funding from billionaire philanthropists–such as the Walton Family Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–with an interest towards boosting “up by the boot strap” schemes rather than pro-public, collective solutions. (Minnesota Comeback also receives funding from the Walton Family Fund, among other wealthy investors.)

EdNavigator’s message is also about helping parents master choice-scattered school landscapes. This offers a hint at the direction Minnesota Comeback is hoping to go in, thanks to their stated goal of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” in Minneapolis.” Those “seats” can occur anywhere–public, private or charter. There is little attachment to community or a public school district, but more room for EdNavigator-type outlets that make money by advising individual parents on how and when to hop schools, when necessary, or otherwise–so the PR goes–get the best for their kid. 

The “best” never seems to include comprehensive economic reform–just a narrow focus on school choice and “parent engagement,” even if that engagement has to be outsourced because the parents are too strapped to do it themselves.

According to the Carnegie Reporter’s coverage of EdNavigator’s work, the group is looking to expand their work (Minneapolis?!): 

At this point, EdNavigator does not yet have enough employers on board to make empowering of parents happen throughout the city of New Orleans. It has, however, been expanding and is looking to launch the service to a second city later this year.

Q: How do you expand your business (er, nonprofit) before you are truly successful?

A: When you have a model that business and wealthy education reformers can support without worrying about their bottom line (hint: when you are not a unionized public school district). A quick glance at the brains behind EdNavigator reveal the usual plutocrat-propped education reform outlets, such as Teach for America, The New Teacher Project and KIPP (a charter school chain run by Teach for America affiliates). 

But don’t take my word for it. Minnesota Comeback is inviting interested parties to sign up and attend their Convening. Here are the details:

  • WHAT: Tuesday, June 27, 4:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. (check in and food served at 4:30; program at 5 p.m.)
  • WHERE: University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) 2001 Plymouth Ave., N., Minneapolis 55411
  • R.S.V.P. here (the event is free)

Choice Navigators Not Your Thing? Attend ISAIAH’s monthly meeting for Minneapolis Public Schools parents

In the absence of other well-coordinated, grassroots, authentically local organizing efforts for Minneapolis parents, ISAIAH has stepped in. ISAIAH is a Minnesota-based coalition of multi-faith religious leaders, focused on advocating for and with marginalized communities. Truly, ISAIAH has been doing a good job of showing up at the Minnesota state capitol to be a voice and a presence for a wide range of racial and social justice issues, including pressuring the Minnesota legislature to put excess resources back into local communities–and not into the pockets of the wealthy via tax cuts.

ISAIAH has also been quietly hosting education advocacy meetings and listening sessions for Minneapolis parents. On June 27, the group will meet at 6:30 p.m. at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church (2600 E 38th St).  According to an email notice of the meeting, sent out by ISAIAH member Greg King, the group will “discuss our recent visit with Eric Moore, Chief of the MPS Office of Accountability, Innovation and Research, and discuss next steps with engaging with the district to further reduce suspensions.”

Although not intended as a representative for all Minneapolis parents, ISAIAH does bring name recognition and a well-rounded approach to education advocacy to the table, thanks to their ongoing work on economic and other issues. 

Minneapolis Public Schools Steps Up on SROs

As outside reform interests continue to put pressure on traditional public school districts–even arguing that districts must willingly give up “under-enrolled” buildings to real estate-starved charter school networks–the Minneapolis Public Schools seems to be working on better communication and engagement with its customer base, er, parents and community members.

Some district staff have given cautious kudos to MPS for surveying teachers for their thoughts on school improvement, for example–a simple gesture that some teachers say has never been done before. Likewise, the district just pushed through–with some serious kid gloves–an amended wellness policy, requiring schools to provide 30 minutes of recess to all students, K-8 (but not middle schools). Schools can implement thirty minutes of continuous recess or break it as they see fit–a nod to both parent activists and some school administrators, who did not want to be held to yet another top-down mandate. 

Friend or foe?

On June 27, the district will host the latest in a series of public meetings around a very hot topic: whether or not to renew its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, which provides School Resource Officers (SROs) to the city’s schools. Thorny! Some activists have been repeatedly pushing the district to cancel this contract and instead put the money into more counselors and other support systems. Nationally, the conversation around police in schools is also taking place, with education justice groups like the Advancement Project arguing that using SROs will not keep students safe or adequately address the School to Prison Pipeline (not to mention the furor surrounding the ongoing killing of Black, brown and Native people by police officers).

A 2016 statement from Hiram Rivera, executive director of the well-regarded Philadelphia Students Union, crystalizes the argument against using police in public schools:

“The federal government cannot justify their plan to place guns in schools by suggesting that police officers are mentors and counselors,” continued Rivera. “Police officers are law enforcement agents who are trained to enforce the criminal code. This is a matter of priorities. Government and school officials rarely seem to find money for good teachers, social workers, counselors or investments in programs that improve school culture such as restorative justice, yet they find millions for police in schools? It’s time to start prioritizing student success, not student criminalization.”

Many student and community members have protested the use of SROs in Minneapolis, while some school leaders and parents have advocated for the continued use of Minneapolis police officers–as a way to build relationships between the community and the police, some have said. The district has waded into this potential quagmire by asking for public input, in advance of August’s school board meeting, when a final decision is expected. Here’s a notice MPS has sent out, along with a series of scheduled meetings:

We’re looking for your input on the future of our School Resource Officer (SRO) program. Three options are being considered for how, or if, SROs will continue to provide MPS schools with ongoing safety and security services. An initial recommendation will be made to the Board of Education on July 11 with a Board vote on August 8. Please join us and share your thoughts at a listening session.

June 27 is the last public meeting around the SRO issue. It will take place at Lyndale Elementary School from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Childcare, food and beverages and interpreters (Somali, Hmong and Spanish) will be provided, according to the district notice. If you can’t attend tomorrow’s meeting, there is still time to complete a survey about SROs in the schools.

There you have it. Three distinct parent and community organizing events, taking place at virtually the same time. One–Minnesota Comeback–promises to focus on outsourcing parent involvement through an EdNavigator-like program, funded by billionaires and businesses, while the Minneapolis Public Schools promises to gather authentic community input into the thorny SRO issue. (Community input has traditionally disappeared into a black hole of good intentions through MPS, previously. Will things be different this time around? Community oversight might help!)

ISAIAH’s education meeting will perhaps be the most genuinely community-driven one, with those who show up able to drive the group’s agenda and rally resources around this central question:

Do public schools really belong to the public?

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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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Minneapolis Parents Choose Community Over Testing

April 24, 2017

In early April, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published the results of a new online survey, completed by parents with kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools. The results offer a surprising revelation: most parents in the city do not choose schools based on standardized test scores.

Like many public school districts across the country, Minneapolis has had to focus in recent years on regaining its “market share,” in an era of ever-spiraling school choice schemes. Another Star Tribune article, this one from 2015,  laid the district’s challenges bare in the headline: “Thousands of Minneapolis children leave district for charters, suburban schools.” Thirty-six thousand students in the city attend the Minneapolis Public Schools, but, the article showed, more than 17,000 school-age kids do not.

The recent survey suggests that it isn’t test results, that induce parents to switch schools. Molly Leutz, a Minneapolis parent portrayed in the most recent article, said that test scores “didn’t even cross (her) mind” when looking at schools for her young daughter. Instead, word of mouth among parents, as well as “diversity,” ranked high on Leutz’s list. In the end, she chose to send her daughter to their neighborhood public school.

Other parents echoed Leutz’s priorities. Sixty percent of the 2,000 survey respondents based their decision on two factors: after-school opportunities (and other enrichment programs) and the “makeup of the student body.” These results further reflect studies done with parents in other communities, such as New Orleans. In 2015, National Public Radio education reporter, Anya Kamenetz, published a story showing that New Orleans parents—who live in what is supposed to be the most “choice-filled” city in the United States—do not put academic factors first.

“Parents, especially low-income parents,” Kamenetz found, “actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars” when choosing schools for their kids. Despite the efforts of outside education reform interests, which have sought to create a network of New Orleans-style charters in place of neighborhood schools, “distance matters a lot” to parents there. This implies that, when it comes to school choice, community and convenience outweigh perceptions of test-driven success.

The Minneapolis survey also found parents ranked old-fashioned techniques such as report cards and parent-teacher communication much more highly than standardized test scores for “gauging student success.” Parents also believed that “hearing from a child” was more important than test scores “when grasping how a child is performing in school.” Perhaps even more compelling, the Minneapolis survey indicates that white and Asian parents were far more likely than black, Latino and Native American parents to “look to” test scores.

The article does not delve into why this may be true, but it does stand to reason that parents of kids who tend to score the highest on standardized tests—i.e., white and Asian-American students—may place more value on such outcomes. White and Asian-American students also, statistically, tend to be wealthier than other students, and standardized test results often reflect a student’s socioeconomic status.

In 2013, a survey of parents in Georgia by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a conservative think tank that typically favors charters) also showed that a majority of parents identified non-academic factors as the primary reason why they chose one school over another. The Georgia survey was done to support the concept of tax-credit scholarships (also known asneovouchers), used to send more students to private school.

In a way, the effort backfired. Less than 10 percent of parents said they looked for “higher standardized test scores” when selecting a school. Instead, things like smaller class sizes, safety and a “better learning environment” mattered more. Currently, many states are in the throes of preparing school accountability plans, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While the transition to the Trump administration has brought some uncertainty for this new education policy, so far, it will allow states to move away from an over reliance on test-based measures of success.

Survey results such as the ones from Minneapolis should, if taken seriously, help policymakers understand that school choice systems built around standardized test scores may not be as important as having a safe, welcoming school in every neighborhood, where relationships and teacher-parent communication rank high.

–Originally published by The Progressive on April 20, 2017

Minneapolis Teachers and Staff of Color Get Jobs Reinstated

April 19, 2017

On April 18, the Minneapolis Public Schools was forced–under public and school board pressure–to rehire or reinstate seven recently fired teachers and staff of color. With the familiar chants of “Si Se Puede!” and “What do we want? Justice!” ringing through the oak-paneled board room, the board’s business as usual was disrupted until the protesters’ demands were met.

Protesters were initially denied entrance to the board room

It was a striking sign of (forced) progress for a board and district that often manages to hide behind protocol, privacy laws and confounding, community-killing procedural niceties. But the night did not belong to propriety and platitudes. Instead, teachers and staff who’ve felt bullied by the Minneapolis Public Schools and pressured into either resigning or being fired spoke publicly about their experiences, and were backed by the room-filling chants and signs of a supportive audience. (Organizing credit goes to the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Movement.)

In a write-up of last night’s meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune mistakenly characterized the staff members’ situation as that of budget-driven layoffs. But those who spoke out at the meeting, or beforehand, described falling victim to a systemic, deeply rooted practice of pushing out and punishing teachers and staff of color, as well as employees who advocate for students’ rights. (The Southwest Journal’s Nate Gotlieb wrote a very succinct, articulate review of last night’s meeting.) 

After a lengthy public comment period, when staff and supporters shared stories of being ushered out of their jobs, thanks to allegedly trumped-up charges of insubordination and so on, the board attempted to adhere to its previously outlined agenda. New board member Kerry Jo Felder, representing District 2 in north Minneapolis, insisted that the board address the employees’ concerns, although she recused herself, as a union employee, from officially weighing in on the matter. 

Several board members expressed discomfort over reinstating the dismissed employees, especially since there may be others in the same position who were not able to be at last night’s meeting. Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon warned that a rush to judgment may lead to unintended consequences, while citywide representative Don Samuels cautioned against making key decisions based on limited input.

Still, the protesters kept pushing, and they won. 

El pueblo unidos jamas sera vencido

–A chant heard at the Davis Center last night

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Minneapolis Teachers of Color to Protest Recent Firings

April 18, 2017

Budget cuts–and heads–are rolling in the Minneapolis Public Schools, prompting lots of behind the scenes chatter and a public rally, set for tonight’s school board meeting. The rally is being planned by the Social Justice Education Movement (SJEM), a local group that also produces the annual Social Justice Education Fair.

In a press release sent out on April 17, SJEM organizers said “six educators of color” will be speaking out tonight against “racist pushouts in the Minneapolis Public Schools.” These six educators, according to SJEM’s announcement, will be advocating for a change in district policies that are said to target students and staff of color. They will also be demanding that their jobs in the district be restored. 

SJEM logo, by Ricardo Levins Morales

Among these six are Lor Vang, whose story was shared on this blog last week. Vang was recently fired from Hmong International Academy without due process, he reports.  The SJEM press release also says that an African-American co-worker of Vang’s was fired around the same time, after being charged with insubordination. 

Michelle Barnes, who until recently was working as a special education assistant at the district’s River Bend site for students with “significant emotional, behavior, and mental health needs,” will also be there tonight.

Barnes’s experience of being fired from River Bend for “expressing concerns with punishing students who ‘misbehaved’ with cold instead of hot lunch” is included on SJEM’s press release, and taps into what appears to be a growing concern: the ease with which some MPS staff–tenured or not–are being dismissed from the district for seemingly small infractions. Stories often float along the edges of various MPS communities, of teachers being forced to resign or be fired (as Vang says he was) for clashing with administrators, or of support staff pegged as troublemakers for, as Barnes alleges, advocating for students. 

Eduardo.jpg

Eduardo Diaz

Bilingual teacher Eduardo Diaz will also speak out at tonight’s board meeting. Diaz is an ESL teacher at Andersen United Community School, a south Minneapolis K-8 site that serves a large percentage of students in poverty (98 percent), as well as English language learners. On SJEM’s website, Diaz, who is not yet tenured, relates a painful story of being told recently that he will not be rehired at Andersen next year, because he is “not making the progress they expected to see in a second year teacher.”

It may be impossible to know all of the factors at play in Diaz’s story, yet he says he has noticed a trend at Andersen:

I was made to feel inadequate, not good enough, and a bad educator. I found it odd that MPS advertises that it wants teachers who think differently and go above and beyond for students, yet they seem to get pushed out of the district at alarming rates.

The number is even greater when you analyze the teachers of color that were let go at Andersen over the last ten years, at least 17% out of 62 or 27% of teachers let go were teachers of color. 

I do not mean to say that the reason I was let go was because of my skin color but I find it hard to think that MPS would want to get rid of a male, veteran, immigrant natively bilingual Spanish speaker. 

Often, district personnel decisions are hidden behind data privacy concerns, making a full analysis of every situation difficult. In the sometimes harrowing void that falls from this, workers can easily be made to feel alone and, as Diaz describes it, “inadequate, not good enough.” This begs the question of whether or not there is enough (or the right kind of) support, transparency and coaching of MPS staff, especially for the teachers of color said to be in high demand.

Hanging in the background is a stark reality: the Minneapolis schools have been facing budget cuts for years (thanks to a statewide disinvestment in public ed), while the district’s percentage of higher needs students has grown significantly. Amid increased special education costs, as well as rising levels of inequality and poverty, MPS has pursued various neoliberal education reform “fixes,” adding to greater destabilization across the district. (Questionable alliances with corporate reform interests, teacher evaluation schemes, Teach for America staffers, Focused Instruction, outsourcing bus drivers and engineers, telling administrators they “have no voice” until test scores go up, destroying whole departments–these are some of the many viruses that have plagued the district in recent years, fueling dysfunction and a pervasive failure narrative.)

The destabilization makes the district more vulnerable to outside influences, such as Minnesota Comeback (at least two MPS employees appear to be active members of this group). Minnesota Comeback belongs to a national campaign, funded in part by Wal-Mart heirs, to reinvent (er, privatize) public education and turn it into a “sector agnostic” sea of “high performing seats,” rather than schools. The goal? To miraculously churn out kids for whom poverty and systemic racism is a thing to be overcome with standardized test scores. 

Into this mix, teachers and staff of color–as well as those who speak out–may find themselves feeling less protected.

In addition to being a dedicated teacher that is well-respected by staff, students, and families, Eduardo is also the only Latino middle school teacher at a K-8 school where over 50% of the students are Latino. Andersen needs Eduardo and the district needs to stop disproportionately pushing out educators of color. Come to the school board this Tuesday April 18th at 5pm to stand with Eduardo and others as we urge the school board to do the right thing! Let Eduardo continue to teach at Andersen! https://www.facebook.com/events/1901032760176615/

–Social Justice Education Movement

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