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

Monday, December 12, 2016

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

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

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still-viable 2016 campaign website says he undertook the policy manual makeover because the current one is so outdated and cumbersome that the board “can’t tell if we are in compliance of our own policies!”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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Bobby Chandler, teacher and researcher. 2007

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