MN Comeback: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing for the Minneapolis Schools?

March 15, 2016

Tonight, the Minneapolis school board will host another special meeting, from 6-8 p.m. at the district’s Davis Center headquarters. The board is expected to decide on the makeup of a new, inclusive hiring committee for its revamped superintendent search. Sources say the board’s new $85,000 search firm, DHR International, is urging quick action on this.

Harbormasters

Education Cities promo pic

Amid all of this revamping, the Minneapolis Public Schools continues to fall further into the hands of MN Comeback.

MN Comeback is part of a national group, Education Cities, which provides funding and competition-based ed reform policy for various local “harbormasters” (their word). Education Cities is funded by the big four in billionaire-boosted ed reform philanthropy: the Gates, Walton, Broad and Dell foundations. 

Ethan Gray

Nationally, Education Cities has stumbled in its attempt to put “harbormasters” into member cities. In Kansas City, Missouri, in 2014, for example, Education Cities (then known as CEE-Trust) was shown the door after its proposed overhaul of the city’s school district was rejected by locals, despite Education Cities director Ethan Gray’s efforts to sway disbelieving teachers to his cause.

Later, it was found that Education Cities had been given a state contract–paid for by private foundations–to come up with a makeover for the Kansas City schools, thanks to a rigged bidding process.

The Kansas City plan failed before it even got off the ground, and Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker thinks he knows why: it was built on flawed rhetoric and faulty research about “failed urban districts” in desperate need of rescue by outsiders.

Baker wrote a 2014 blog post that taps into a host of issues with harbormaster-like invasions of school districts. First, there is the assumption–music to elite ears–that “urban” districts are failure factories. Then, there is the skewed use of research and data that supports this assumption. What follows, in Education Cities’ beautifully graphed and illustrated reports, is the hidden idea that the public should give up control over its school districts, in favor of public-private partnerships. (Baker correctly taps into the “totally ignored issue of student, employee and taxpayer rights,” which tend to vanish in situations like this.)

In Minneapolis, MN Comeback has been meeting privately for at least a few years, and busily concocting a vague but “doable” plan to “remake our entire city’s education system.” This plan centers on the creation of 30,000 “rigorous and relevant seats” across the city, in “sector agnostic” settings, meaning they don’t care where these seats are–charter, private or  traditional public school–as long as they are “high performing.”

Reducing education to a conversation about “seats” rather than students should be considered a dog whistle ed reform strategy. “Seats” in “sector agnostic” schools is a venture capitalist’s plan, where teachers (expensive!) can be partially replaced by hand-held personal learning devices that, objectively, of course, and with high expectations, track student data and constantly tailor lesson plans to each student’s measurable failures and successes. This is where the money is in ed reform.

For evidence, take a look at the current job opening for a MN Comeback “Managing General Partner”:

The centerpiece of MN Comeback is Great MN Schools (GMS), an independent 501(c)(3) that will direct and manage the investment of a pool of capital allocated to develop high-performing schools in Minneapolis. Taking a venture capital approach, this $35M fund will have direct accountability to expand the charter sector, and support MN Comeback’s work in the district and independent sectors.

In Kansas City, Education Cities got burned by trying to go through Missouri state government on its way to venture capitalizing on the city’s public school district. Here, MN Comeback has not bothered with such a public pretense. Instead, the group has been quietly embedding itself in the Minneapolis Public Schools for several years, mostly through the district’s Office of New Schools–a department recommended by the 2007 McKinsey & Company-crafted strategic plan for Minneapolis.

Through the Office of New Schools, MN Comeback has been promoting and funding its pet project: Community Partnership Schools (CPS). This year, four Minneapolis schools operate as CPS sites, including Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary, Bancroft Elementary, Folwell K-8 school and Ramsey Middle School. 

The CPS strategy is a part of a national move to turn city school districts into “portfolios,” made robust by schools that compete against one another for programming, students and resources. Locally, it is being carried by MN Comeback (called a coalition here), according to a 2015 newsletter by one of its funders, the private RKMC Foundation:

The coalition is also working to increase autonomy and flexibility in Minneapolis Public Schools through Community Partnership Schools, where school leaders have been approved to take on more authority with their school’s budget, curriculum, staffing, and instructional time.

Clearly, the privately managed, privately funded MN Comeback–which bears no responsibility to the “seats” it hopes to serve–has had its hands in the Minneapolis schools for some time. And their range is focused: the CPS model is one of only three things being “supported” by MN Comeback, according to the Education Cities website. The other two are MinnCAN, whose flush, reformy thumbprints are all over every MN Comeback policy “team,” and the IFF, a Chicago-based nonprofit that specializes in real estate consulting for “low-income communities.”  

Another great CPS site?

Just before last week’s Minneapolis school board meeting, when the board was to vote on a new batch of CPS sites, MN Comeback shot off a letter to board members, declaring support for this top down reform model:

We support the district’s belief that Community Partnership Schools will yield strong results if implemented with full support. In accordance with ‘Acceleration 2020,’ we share common values – equity, diversity, accountability – and goals: 1) the school as the unit of change; 2) grant principals increased flexibility; and 3) provide students with great educational options. The district’s strategic plan and these common values drive our support for Community Partnership Schools, which we have supported financially. We want to be seen as a partner in this effort.

Any superintendent search committee member should understand what MN Comeback is, and the potential threat it poses to the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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3 thoughts on “MN Comeback: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing for the Minneapolis Schools?

  1. Rebecca Gagnon

    I suggested that the Mpls Board of Education have an official public conversation at our next meeting about MN Comeback so I could understand what the thoughts are of individual board members. I’ve been making an assumption, maybe incorrectly, that our Board does not support an organization who’s mission is to destabilize and destroy MPS (looking to have 30,000 Mpls students in “high quality seats” by 2025). In fact, a letter from Interim Superintendent Goar last fall stated that we would not partner with this group. None of the other Board members supported having that conversation. Hopefully it was because our plate is full with the Superintendent Search and Referendum. I am also frustrated that some board members I spoke with are OK with taking MN Comeback’s “no strings attached” money for our programs like Grow Your Own teacher licensure pathway and Community Partnership Schools. There is no such thing as “free” money. I hope we are able to create space for the Board to have that conversation soon. I am concerned the partnership is expanding quickly.

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