McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Starvation and Strategy

February 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Recent New York Times photo of the Itasca Project at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why didn’t anybody say anything? 

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

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

More on that next, I promise.

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One thought on “McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Starvation and Strategy

  1. Nick Schommer

    I watched the Black panther story on PBS last night. I lived through those times. It’s good to see behind the scene strategy revealed. Forty years later, reveal time seems to be shrinking on issues and the intricacy of the process more complex.


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