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.
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.
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?).
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.)
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.
- MinnCAN–an outpost of the national 50CAN pop-up advocacy group, financed by hedge fund monies, was also located at 2800 University Ave, SE, #202, until undergoing its own rebranding it 2016.
- MinnCAN–perhaps after a series of school board election-related mishaps–shapeshifted into a new group, Ed Allies. A Pioneer Press report denotes the lack of actual change going on: “Daniel Sellers, who led MinnCAN until July when he left to work on the new venture, will head Ed Allies. Most of MinnCAN’s existing staff will join him, and most of MinnCAN’s local funders plan to support the new organization.”
- Ed Allies even has the same address as MinnCAN…and Great MN Schools…and Minnesota Comeback (although it appears to have a separate suite number): 2800 University Ave SE #200, Minneapolis, MN 55414
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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