Tag Archives: Education Cities

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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MinnCAN Shifts as Minneapolis School Board Race Gets “Animated”

October 1, 2016

In a September 28 email sent to supporters, Andrea Roethke, interim director of the Minneapolis-based education reform group, MinnCAN, announced that the group has disbanded.

First launched in 2011, MinnCAN–a franchise of the national 50CAN reform outfit--rode into Minnesota on a wave of tobacco lawsuit money, thanks to the Robins Kaplan Miller and Ciresi law firm. In the 1990’s, the firm won a significant case against the tobacco industry, earning more than $400 million in fees. To handle this abundance, the RKMC (Robins Kaplan Miller and Ciresi) Foundation for Children was created. 

As documented in an earlier series of blog posts, the RKMC Foundation then provided seed money for a number of billionaire-backed education reform groups, including MinnCAN, Students for Education Reform, and Educators for Excellence (E4E), so they could set up shop in the Twin Cities.

The RKMC Foundation also gave $30 million to the Minneapolis Foundation, helping to establish an immensely funded, powerfully connected cabal of local reform interests. The highpoint of this, if it can be called that, came in 2013, through a coordinated yet short-lived “RESET Education” campaign. This campaign smacked of either naiveté or hubris, with an ill-advised series of embarrassing public events (co-sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio) that were little more than PR plugs for charter schools, Teach for America and the like. (RESET died out quickly, but fluttered back to life as part of an “education ecosystem” concept, promoted by the local Bush Foundation and built around similar philanthropist-driven reform ideals such as school choice.)

MinnCAN, until recently, was led by former Teach for America employee, Daniel Sellers. The group shared space in southeast Minneapolis with local, but now defunct, charter school champions, Charter School Partners.

While running MinnCAN, Sellers also got heavily involved in the 2014 Minneapolis school board race. That race garnered a fair amount of local and national publicity, partly for the ugly tenor of it, and partly because it featured an eye-popping influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside, reform-soaked money. Sellers played a key role in this through his 2014 side job as chair of a new political action group called the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

Sellers’ Fund successfully lobbied for money from heavy hitters like Michael Bloomberg, the reform-friendly former mayor of New York, and Arthur Rock, a lesser known Teach for America board member and venture capitalist from California. Their money was used to promote two candidates for the school board–Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano–and to portray locally-funded incumbent candidate, Rebecca Gagnon, as beholden to special interests. (Gagnon and Samuels ended up winning seats on the board.)

Like the 2013 RESET Education effort, the 2014 Minneapolis race was off-putting for many, with its aggressive tone, nasty campaign literature and flashy hints of the purchasing power of plutocrats. Sellers didn’t seem to take any hits for his role in this, as he kept on at MinnCAN until earlier this year, when he stepped down and Andrea Rotheke took over as interim director.

Rotheke’s goodbye-to-MinnCAN note makes it clear that neither Sellers, nor the apparently flourishing local reform “ecosystem,” is going anywhere soon:

We have had the honor of working alongside many leaders in education advocacy, from the founders of the charter movement to long-time champions for educational equity to partners leading change within our schools.

We’ve also been thrilled to watch the growth of the local education advocacy ecosystem. Students for Education Reform has grown into a thriving chapter, Educators 4 Excellence has emerged to empower local teacher voices—including many of our own teacher policy fellows—and Minnesota Comeback has flourished with support from MinnCAN’s former deputy director. Later this year, this coalition will be joined by a new organization led by former MinnCAN executive director Daniel Sellers, which will further add to the strength of the ecosystem.

Sellers’ new organization, in fact, will be called Ed Allies, and will continue MinnCAN’s reform work, with the ongoing support of local philanthropists, according to a recent Pioneer Press article. He also appears to be taking an active, though less prominent, role in this year’s school board race. Back in August, an advertisement was placed on a local “e-Democracy” forum by a “Daniel Martin,” who was actually Daniel Sellers–according to the required email address that was provided.

Daniel Martin/Sellers’s advertisement was for an “Animate the Race” campaign, regarding the 2016 Minneapolis school board race. “We’re seeking 10-15 Minneapolis residents to become Animate the Race Fellows,” the notice stated, before explaining that chosen participants will earn $1000 for helping to “create a public conversation about the Minneapolis school board race.” 

The ad lists an August 19 deadline, and makes it plain that the Animate the Race campaign is “intentionally seeking to elevate a racially, geographically, and ideologically diverse set of perspectives.” But further on down, at the bottom of the page, sits a small, italicized, legally required disclaimer:

The Animate the Race project is funded in part by MN Comeback, a 501c3 non-profit organization and The JD Graves Foundation, a private family foundation. MN Comeback and the JD Graves Foundation are non-partisan and do not take positions in political campaigns.

Ah ha. That’s it. Minnesota Comeback is the new face of the reform movement in Minneapolis (having absorbed Charter School Partners and the RESET campaign, and so on) and Sellers, who has been involved with the group from the beginning, as a policy advisor, is apparently helping lead their voter outreach efforts. (Former Charter School Partners director Al Fan now heads up Minnesota Comeback.) 

Aaron Glassman's The Harbormaster

Aaron Glassman’s The Harbormaster

Side note: In July, I wrote a blog post about Minnesota Comeback and the likelihood that the group–which is a franchise, or “harbormaster,” in a reform network called Education Cities–would play a key role in the 2016 school board race. Read it here!

The Graves Foundation is a local, private foundation that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Minnesota Comeback, as well as to a variety of highly-touted charter school chains and the Minneapolis Public Schools (in part to support the district’s school autonomy plan, called Community Partnership Schools). In the interest of promoting “Rigorous and Responsive K-12” schools, the Foundation has been similarly good to the local education reform ecosystem, doling out thousands of dollars in grants to Students for Education Reform, Educators for Excellence (E4E) and Teach for America.

In June, 2016, the Graves Foundation also gave a $12, 650 grant to incumbent school board candidate Josh Reimnitz’s employer, Students Today Leaders Forever, for a “student leadership retreat.” That’s fine. But it makes the idea of neutrality harder to swallow, then, from a Graves Foundation/Minnesota Comeback funded “Animate the Race” campaign. 

Although Sellers’ ad called for 10-15 Fellows, so far, just four are listed on the Animate the Race website, and one of them, Karen Shapiro, was already a MinnCAN blogging Fellow. 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Minnesota Comeback: Nexus of Influence for School Board Race?

July 5, 2016

Will Minnesota Comeback play a starring role in Minneapolis’s 2016 school board race?

In Nashville and Indianapolis, Minnesota Comeback’s brothers-in-arms, known as “Nashville RISE” and “The Mind Trust,” have attempted to do just that, in their own cities’ elections. On June 16, education policy analyst, Andy Spears, wrote about this for his blog, Tennessee Education Report. In his posts, Spears tries to devise just who and what Nashville RISE is, and why they have jumped into the Metro Nashville School Board (MNSB) race. In so doing, he cites Minnesota Comeback and The Mind Trust as reference points. 

Must-read: “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools”

Quick overview: Nashville RISE, Minnesota Comeback and The Mind Trust are three of the twenty-four splinter groups–or “harbormasters“–under the wing of the Memphis-based reform outfit, Education CitiesEducation Cities is funded by the usual billionaire suspects, yet its overlord-like connection to all of these offshoots is not exactly well-known. Instead, each group–Minnesota Comeback included–maintains an image of homespun helpmate for their city’s ever-struggling public school systems. (Background on Minnesota Comeback can be found here.)

Nashville RISE has landed in some hot water lately, by trying to insert itself–in a less than transparent way–into Nashville’s school board race, according to Spears:

The involvement of Project Renaissance/Nashville RISE in this year’s MNPS school board races has been the source of a bit of controversy, from promoting (then deleting) an event with Stand for Children to a Phil Williams story raising questions about the source of funding and lack of disclosure.

As the Phil Williams story points out, Nashville RISE is incredibly well-funded, backed by money from philanthropic interests and by supporters of the charter school movement. Also backed by some donors who don’t want their identities revealed.

Nashville RISE has, among other things, produced slick video ads for its own forum on the Nashville school board race, with a promise that the group is all about building a “network of engaged parents” who will help advocate for high quality schools for all. Sounds great, as does Nashville RISE’s further mission of working to help schools “care for students and families holistically,” and so on.

But, as Spears’s blog posts point out, the group is aligned with Education Cities and its politically savvy funders, who must know that describing one’s mission as “holistic,” and “parent-driven” provides safe cover for other, more nefarious goals. Also, Nashville RISE is directly connected to Stand for Children–an organization whose transformation from legitimate advocacy group to mostly corrupted outlet for ALEC and Teach for America, et al, should serve as a warning for anyone tempted to fall for Nashville RISE’s flowery, pro-family rhetoric.

But why is Nashville RISE involved in that city’s school board race? And why might Minnesota Comeback attempt to wield influence in the 2016 Minneapolis race? 

Whitney Tilson

For answers, look no further than The Mind Trust. This Indianapolis-based group was featured in a May, 2016 American Prospect article called, “Hedging Education: How Hedge Funders Spurred the Pro-Charter Political Network.” In the article, writer Justin Miller describes how TFA alum and hedge fund success story, Whitney Tilson, started the pro-charter political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER):

Straight out of Harvard, Tilson deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach For America’s first employees in 1989. Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York. Soon after that, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him. “It was so clearly different and so impactful,” Tilson says. “Such a place of joy, but also rigor.”

When Tilson observed pushback on the growth of KIPP, a charter school chain often linked with the “no excuses” model, he rallied a cadre of like-minded hedge funders, and started DFER:

,,,Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in. Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”

Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.

It’s not hard to believe that Tilson’s group, DFER, has had tremendous success shaping federal education policy. It has. But that’s not enough. Hedge funders don’t rest with one victory, or one successful fund. They want more. And so, Miller writes, DFER expanded:

As it found tremendous success at the federal level, DFER tried to maximize its newfound influence to leverage reform in local politics.

Here’s where Indianapolis comes in. Beginning in 2010-2011, as Miller notes, The Mind Trust used grant money to bring in “DFER, the advocacy group Stand For Children, and the network of political money that came with them.” With new political and hedge fund-fueled financial muscle, The Mind Trust helped flip the 2012 and 2014 Indianapolis school board races, stacking the board with hand-picked reform advocates, such as DFER national board member, Mary Ann Sullivan. Under the influence of DFER and its acolytes, the Indianapolis school board brought on a “friendly” superintendent, Lewis Ferebee, who has overseen the expansion of neoliberal education reform strategies. (Important note: Indianapolis, like Nashville and Minneapolis, is under the policy influence of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or “CRPE.”) 

Outgoing Minneapolis Foundation head, Sandra Vargas, is the board chair of 50CAN

In 2011, the reform landscape shifted in Minneapolis, too, when the local RKMC Foundation, started by attorney Mike Ciresi, provided seed money to outside education reform outfits, such as Teach for America, Educators for Excellence, MinnCAN and SFER (Students for Education Reform). The RKMC Foundation, which is closely aligned with the Minneapolis Foundation and its market-based reform priorities, is also a strong supporter of Minnesota Comeback. (Amy Hertzel, McKinsey & Co. alum and former education policy person for the Minneapolis Foundation, is now a “Partner” at Education Cities.)

In 2012, just like in Indianapolis, Minneapolis saw the most money ever spent on its once-lowly, but suddenly high stakes, school board race. Teach for America alum and new Minneapolis resident, Josh Reimnitz, won a spot on the school board with a little help from well-connected friends. Here’s a taste of that simpler time, when a five-figure race (Reimnitz raised close to $40,000 in 2012) was considered extravagant and shocking:

An example of how the TFA network helped Reimnitz was an October fundraiser that raised about 15 percent of his campaign treasury. It was held at the Edina home of Matthew Kramer, TFA’s national president, who is married to a TFA alum who works for a group that promotes high-quality charter schools.

An independent expenditure of about $6,000 for a mailing sent by the political arm of New York-based school reform group 50CAN, for which Kramer is board chair, also drew complaints. It was the first school board donation by the young group, which has focused on legislative contests in the East.

–Minneapolis Star Tribune, November, 2012: “Minneapolis school election has national implications

Fast forward to 2014. Then, outside investors such as Michael Bloomberg and California venture capitalist and TFA board member, Arthur Rock, deluged the Minneapolis school board race with an eye-popping $250,000 in campaign funds. 

What can I do for you?

That money was funneled through a pop-up PAC, the “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund,” led by TFA alum and MinnCAN boss, Daniel Sellers. (MinnCAN is a franchise of 50CAN, also started by East Coast hedge funders.) This fund famously backed two candidates (from afar, of course, thanks to Citizens United)–Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano–and attempted to defeat incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. 

In a 2014 interview, Sellers downplayed the mountain of outside money shadowing the race, saying the contributions from people like Bloomberg were nothing more than an “indication that they care about Minneapolis.” (Sellers is now the policy chair for Minnesota Comeback’s “coalition.”) 

The money helped land Samuels on the school board, but Gagnon made it anyway, while Altamirano did not. Perhaps that is why this year’s school board race has, thus far, been relatively quiet. Will investors squander more hard-earned, hedge fund dollars on the 2016 Minneapolis race, if their estimated ROI is minimal?

Enter Minnesota Comeback. This group, like its counterparts in Nashville and Indianapolis, has the bank account and political connections to make a big splash in this year’s race, albeit from a dignified, Citizens United distance (for a primer on how this is done, look to 2014). While no candidate forums appear to have been scheduled, yet, (unlike August 2014, when, for example, the dubious “People’s Forum” was held in Minneapolis), the first round of campaign finance reports for school board candidates is due on August 6.

Those reports should reveal which Minneapolis school board candidates are getting what money–asked for or not–from the cabal of DFER-like reformers in Minnesota and beyond.

Thus far, there is no real contest for the one citywide spot, which is likely to go to incumbent, Kim Ellison. Seats in districts 2, 4 and 6 are being contested, with incumbents Josh Reimnitz (4) and Tracine Asberry (6) running despite failing to secure the endorsement of Minneapolis’s Democratic party (both had said they would not run without this endorsement, but later entered the race at the last minute).

School board seats secured with reform resources could help Minnesota Comeback achieve its goal of bringing “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” to Minneapolis by 2025. (The focus on “high quality seats” rather than students or schools is a popular Education Cities marketing pitch, perhaps meant for venture capitalist ears.) In an era of low funding and high expectations for public ed, anything seems possible. 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Need Relevance? Try Recess

April 10, 2016

Locally operated, nationally organized education reform “harbormaster” MN Comeback is holding its first-ever “relevance working group” on April 11, according to a recent report in MinnPost (caution: both MinnPost and MN Comeback are funded by the Minneapolis and Bush Foundations). 

MN Comeback is a well oiled arm of the national reform outfit, Education Cities; Education Cities, in turn, receives its marching orders and paychecks from a cohort of billionaire philanthropists via the Gates, Walton, Broad and Dell foundations. (The recent MinnPost article, however, makes no mention of this, and instead paints MN Comeback as nothing more than an organic, grassroots gathering of respected local folks, such as R.T. Rybak.)

MN Comeback is built around a suggestive tagline: “30,000 rigorous, relevant seats by 2025.” Problem is, the people behind MN Comeback have yet to figure out what a “relevant” seat looks like. They’ve got the “rigorous” part down, of course, because rigor=test scores and “college and career ready” coursework. (Follow MN Comeback’s money trail to see this in action: the group just gave $250,000 to the sketchy, interim test-generating “leadership” group called Achievement Now.)

But the relevance? That’s dicier, because “relevance” is harder to wrangle onto a spreadsheet and bar graph. MN Comeback executive director, Al Fan, describes the situation this way, in the MinnPost piece:

“We know it’s a lot of things to different people, but it should include something around cultural relevance, social-emotional skill building, 21st century skills; it may include something around behavior, teacher retention, community support,” he said. “But we don’t have any of those measures yet, so we need to develop them. Our work is around ‘How do we define it in a way that we can measure it and use it to really fine tune how we define great schools?’ 

Notice how “relevance” is never about having stable housing, safe neighborhoods or access to comprehensive social services? But I digress. Fan and his MN Comeback crew could probably learn a lot about relevance by checking out a new recess petition, put out by Minneapolis parents. The petition is less than 48 hours old, and already has close to 850 signatures.

The petition makes this demand, and it incorporates the need for an actual lunch time for kids:

We are asking the Board of Education of the Minneapolis Public Schools System to enact a policy that ensures every child in K-8 receives a daily minimum of 30 minutes of unstructured, safe, supervised recess time, prior to a 30 minute lunch period.  Recess is not a substitute for time spent in Physical Education classes, nor may this time be taken away from students as punishment for behavioral issues.  

The comments alone are priceless, and provide a goldmine of info about what “relevance” means to public school parents, staff and kids. Here’s a sampling:

I would like all children to have a minimum of 1 hour & hopefully this is a step in the right direction!!

In Finland, highly acclaimed for their education system, kids get 15 minutes of exercise/outdoor time per hour! My son has ASD and the lack of outdoor time severely impacts his ability to focus and learn. The trade offs are not worth it.

I have a toddler who I will be sending to MPS in a few years and I’d like to know he’ll have more than 13 minutes to play outside!

As a 5th grade teacher, I know that it is absolutely in the best interest of students to give them time to run, play, and talk with their peers. 

I teach kindergarten in Minneapolis. My kids need more time to run and play for their physical and mental health.

Kids learn better when they are able to be active!!! You want better test scores? Give them adequate time for recess! Look at Farmington’s research on physical activity and improved test scores.

I know if my kids don’t run around for at least 30 minutes a day I can’t even handle them as their mother. How are teachers supposed to do their job if they’re trying to control a class filled with pent-up energy? We’re failing our teachers and our kids by limiting their recess to 15 minutes.

There is a heap of research showing how much young minds need unstructured time and movement to help facilitate learning. Also, we all need to move – especially younger kids.

If a recess (and lunch) petition gathers 1,000 signatures, how should we measure its relevance?

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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MN Comeback Leapfrogs Democracy in Minneapolis

April 7. 2016

If there is any question about how deeply embedded the market-based reform group, MN Comeback, is within the Minneapolis Public Schools, a recent email from the district’s Human Capital director, Maggie Sullivan, should make the situation unmistakably clear.

Sullivan, who sits on a MN Comeback committee along with other MPS human resources employees, wrote the following message (condensed here) to district staff on April 6:

Good Morning Everyone!

I want to share some positive news.  We were just awarded $575k from Minnesota Comeback to fund the Minneapolis Residency Program.  This means that the program is now fully funded for next year so we will be able to continue with a second cohort of residents!  The Comeback is a movement of schools, funders and educational organizations developing a citywide plan to coordinate systems-level grants that improve K-12 education.

Way to go team!

This startling tidbit–that a private group with a distinct mission to disrupt, alter, and take students from the Minneapolis Public Schools–will now be fully funding the district’s own training program for future teachers of color should stop the presses. But it hasn’t.

Instead, Star Tribune education reporter Alejandra Matos spun out a MN Comeback article yesterday, in which the group’s efforts sound like something Mother Teresa might approve of.

Matos describes MN Comeback as simply a “group of foundations and business leaders,” intent on snuffing out the “achievement gap.” There is no mention of MN Comeback’s allegiance with the national reform group, Education Cities, and no deeper analysis of what their motives might be, beyond MN Comeback director Al Fan’s stated intentions:

“We envision a day when every child in Minneapolis regardless of their race, income or ZIP code has access to world-class schools,” said Al Fan, Minnesota Comeback’s executive director, in a statement. 

Fan’s description of MN Comeback strongly echoes Teach for America’s legendaryOne Dayslogan, which in turn strongly echoes the mission of the Walton Family Foundation, whose Walmart-fueled largesse funds both TFA and MN Comeback:

The foundation has invested more than $1 billion to date to improve all types of schools — traditional district, public charter and private — and to support innovative organizations that share a common goal: to give all families the ability to choose the best school for their child, regardless of their ZIP code. 

This all makes sense. Teach for America is deeply entwined in MN Comeback, as former TFA alum (including MinnCAN director Daniel Sellers and his wife, Stacy Strauss) and current TFA staff sit on the group’s numerous committees, helping its funders decide how to spend their money. Given Teach for America’s growing PR problems, that should give pause to anyone following this, or writing about it, or choosing to accept money from MN Comeback.

But MN Comeback is doing something great by funding Minneapolis’s burgeoning “Grow Your Own” program, right? Everyone agrees–rightfully so–that diversifying Minnesota’s teaching corps must be a priority. And, as Maggie Sullivan notes in Matos’s Star Tribune article, this initiative needs money:

“Without this funding we would not be able to run the program next year.”

The article makes no mention of the fact that, simultaneously, there is a bill moving through the Minnesota legislature for a statewide, publicly funded “Grow Your Own” program. It has broad support and is expected to pass and bring funding with it, as part of Governor Mark Dayton’s outlined education and racial equity priorities.

Minneapolis’s Grow Your Own program would surely benefit from this bill, without the infusion of money from MN Comeback. But this way, MN Comeback gets to leapfrog the democratic process, where elected representatives write bills and haggle over where taxpayer dollars should go. There is no oversight here. No elected rep to turn to. No publicly held meetings, recorded in excruciating detail. (One Minneapolis school board member, Rebecca Gagnon, has publicly questioned Minneapolis’s relationship with MN Comeback, to no avail thus far.)

There are questions to ask about who will ultimately own this program, if MN Comeback is paying for it. This group has said, numerous times, that their mission is to remake the Minneapolis schools, mostly through market-based reforms (competition, choice, the chase for higher test scores). And it wants to “expand the charter sector” in Minneapolis, bearing no special allegiance to the Minneapolis schools (so these trained teachers will be working where?).

Matos’s article states that MN Comeback will also help lobby for “nonconventional teacher prep programs,” a core mission shared by Teach for America and its affiliates, including Educators for Excellence and MinnCAN. This is a policy step favored by the market-based reform movement, often with the goal of making teachers more “outcome” oriented, and less steeped in meaningless educational “theory.” (“Nonconventional,” or alternative, licensure programs already receive a tremendous amount of lobbying support in MN.)

Paying for more Minneapolis staffers to become licensed teachers could be a red herring, giving MN Comeback the cover it needs to work behind the scenes, shaping Minneapolis into more of a portfolio, choice-saturated district (with a real estate kickback to boot, for investors). This is a function of our current plutocracy. Consider these excerpts, from a 2011 Alternet article, “Meet the Plutocrats Behind Attacks on Public Education”:

…billionaires, the Nation’s magazines Dana Goldstein suggests, may have a deeper reason for pushing their education vision, for insisting that putting “better” teachers into America’s classrooms can “completely overcome poverty.”

“If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, Goldstein observes, “then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality–about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the super rich and prevent us from expanding access to child care and food stamps.”

MN Comeback may be paying for an important program, but what will they expect in return?

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Test Score and School Governance “Miracles” Debunked in New Reports

March 29, 2016

Two key education reform strategies being implemented in the Minneapolis Public Schools withered a bit yesterday, after being exposed to some data-driven sunlight.

First came a policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), based at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The NEPC, which casts a welcome, skeptical eye on today’s “transformational” education reform ideas, zeroed in on the “portfolio” district model, which Minneapolis has been operating under since at least 2010. 

CRPE, purveyor of “portfolio” school reform strategies

The portfolio model is rooted in the principles of the stock market, where “underperforming” stocks–or schools–will be quickly shed in favor of different stocks, or schools, that promise to yield better results. The goal is profit, in the stock market, and “high performance” in the school district realm. Paradoxically, the education policy that accompanies this approach promises more freedom (“autonomy”), while insisting that schools adhere to standardized, pre-determined measures of success (test scores).

In Minneapolis, we are seeing this through the district’s promotion of “Community Partnership Schools,” heavily touted as a way to empower schools and encourage success–as long as the schools jump through someone else’s “accountability” hoops. But the NEPC brief does not simply swallow the portfolio rhetoric, even as it acknowledges that “given the struggles of urban school districts, no proposal should be easily dismissed.”

Instead, the NEPC encourages policy makers to look beyond the “spin and cherry-picked data” that has accompanied the portfolio district model (brought to Minneapolis by the national ed reform advocacy group, Center on Reinventing Public Education).

A significant problem, according to the NEPC, is that portfolio models have been sold as a way to “overcome problems of poverty and structural inequality and under-resourced schools” only through “changes to the school management structure.” A portfolio approach to school reform does not naturally confront the deep “societal inequities” that have created great concentrations of poverty in urban districts, and instead,  expects schools to close gaps without additional state funding or economic policy support.

And, it can cut out democratic decision-making, often by replacing or overriding elected school boards and state government, and putting schools in the hands of private operators or funders– mostly at the expense of poor communities of color (whose voting rights are also currently under attack in many states, as the NEPC policy brief points out).

We can see this happening before our eyes in Minneapolis, through the growing influence of MN Comeback–the privately funded, privately managed group that says it would like to completely “remake” Minneapolis’s public school system, primarily by funding the Community Partnership Schools/portfolio plan–minus public oversight.

MN Comeback is part of the billionaire-funded, Memphis-based group, Education Cities. On March 22, Education Cities published an “Education Equality Index,” designed to “measure and compare schools, cities, and states” according to student test scores. It seems the idea was to celebrate a handful of “gap-closing” miracle schools, where low-income kids are performing well on standardized tests–frequently in charter schools. This fits the narrative most likely to be supported by Education Cities’ funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, whose love for charter schools is legendary.

Sounds great, right? The problem is, Education Cities’s methodology–described as “junk” by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker–was flawed, and has since been retracted through a contrite press release that went out on March 29. Behold the cumbersome backtracking:

Education Cities and GreatSchools have identified limitations in the interpretation of state-level Education Equality Index (EEI) scores. Our goal is to highlight states, cities and schools that are more successfully closing the achievement gap than others. We are confident that school-level and city-level EEI scores are highlighting success stories across the nation, but we have concluded that the state-level EEI scores are not the best way to compare states. Because states’ absolute EEI scores are highly correlated to the percentage of students in the state who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, we have removed the rankings of states based on the EEI score and pace of change pending further review.

It turns out that ranking students according to test scores is not as easy as it sounds, especially when the goal is to compare kids in different states. All poor kids are not the same. All tests are not the same. Different states have different tests, with different cut scores, throwing into question who is really a “high performing” poor kid and who is not (the question is never whether or not we should have so many poor kids in the first place…). All of this makes turning kids into data points on a graph really tricky, which was quickly uncovered by consumers–and even presumed supporters–of Education Cities’ index. 

The embarrassing flaw in Education Cities’ report was that their use of data made it look like states with higher numbers of poor kids were “doing better” than states with fewer kids in poverty. That’s because poverty impacts test scores. A state with more kids in poverty is going to have a lower “achievement” gap, because it will have fewer high performing test takers, overall. 

This is why the NEPC policy report recommends states resist grasping for miraculous ed reform strategies, such as charter schools or portfolio district models. Instead, William Mathis and Kevin Wellner, who authored the report, argue that an “equity-focused” approach to boosting urban schools makes more sense, and should involve, first and foremost, adequately funding schools. 

Minnesota lawmakers are currently weighing how to spend a $900 million “surplus.” So far, it seems Governor Mark Dayton is the only one who wants to spend the bulk of this on education, with Republicans pushing for tax cuts and Democrats prioritizing transportation needs, meaning the “adequate funding” of Minneapolis’s schools might not be happening anytime soon.

Most importantly, however, all the evidence suggests that no governance approach will come close to mitigating the harms caused by policies generating concentrated poverty in our urban communities. In light of this core truth, does it make sense to privatize the management of urban schools?

NEPC Portfolio Schools Policy Brief

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated.

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MinnPost Piece on Minneapolis School Reform: PR or Not?

March 23, 2016

They say you better listen to the voice of reason/ But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason /So you had better do as you are told

–Elvis Costello,Radio Radio

The local Bush Foundation funds education coverage at MinnPost, which bills itself as a site for “non-partisan…high quality journalism” about Minnesota. The Bush Foundation also funds MN Comeback, a privately run education reform outpost of the national group, Education Cities. (Additionally, Kayla Yang-Best, the Bush Foundation’s Education Director, sits on the Board of Directors of MN Comeback.)

MN Comeback, in turn, funds the Minneapolis Public Schools’s “innovative” new approach to school reform, called Community Partnership Schools (CPS).  Therefore, anyone who has read MinnPost education writer Erin Hinrich’s positive March 22 review of the CPS model should bear in mind that the Bush Foundation is paying for both the CPS strategy and media coverage of it.

Let’s be clear: This is PR work, not “high quality journalism.” 

I mean no disrespect to Hinrichs, who may be unaware of the reformy minefield she has stepped into at MinnPost, nor can she be expected to singularly answer for questions such as these, posed by Bill Moyers at a 2015 journalism award ceremony: 

What happens to a society fed a diet of rushed, re-purposed, thinly reported “content?” Or “branded content” that is really merchandising — propaganda — posing as journalism?

Hinrichs’s March 22 story about the Community Partnership Schools concept sits only on the surface of this ideal-sounding education reform strategy, and seems to swallow whole the idea that CPS sites are truly about empowering individual teachers and schools to do what they think best for their students. 

One tenet of CPS sites and their host “portfolio” districts

If only. CPS sites are supposed to take on more “accountability” (test scores) in exchange for “greater autonomy.” This concept is shrouded in the fog of education reform jargon, such as buckets (which buckets can schools fill by themselves? which will be filled by the district?), stakeholders, units of change and so on.  What is missing is even a basic analysis of the agenda behind the concept.

There must be a reason, after all, that “autonomous” schools, like CPS sites, are so beloved and happily funded by the capital-soaked arbiters of education and economic policy, in Minnesota and beyond. We can’t find money for more school counselors or mental health support in our schools and our communities, yet MN Comeback is sitting on a $35 million nest egg, just waiting to fund–through private grants–their own pet reform projects, like CPS.

This should raise red flags for anyone tracking the movement of the CPS model through the Minneapolis schools. What, truly, are we–as taxpayers, residents, and parents, students, and staff–being asked to forfeit, in exchange for a crumb of greater “autonomy”? 

…no peer-reviewed studies of portfolio districts exist, meaning that no reliable empirical evidence about portfolio effects is available that supports either the implementation or rejection of the portfolio district reform model. Nor is such evidence likely to be forthcoming. Even advocates acknowledge the enormous difficulty of designing credible empirical studies to determine how the portfolio approach affects student achievement and other outcomes.

–Education Policy Professor Kenneth J. Saltman, 2010

No foundation grant here! My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated.

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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.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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MN Comeback: Reheated Ed Reform Treats

March 3, 2016

As part of my ongoing series on McKinsey & Company’s influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools, I promised a closer look at the latest group that wants to have its way with the district, MN Comeback. Access Part 1 of my McKinsey series here, and go from there.

On Tuesday, March 1, MN Comeback held its quarterly meeting within the warm and naturally lit Heritage Park YMCA space, on the near-north rim of Minneapolis.

While a handful of Heritage Park residents whirred along on exercise machines across the hall, MN Comeback meeting attendees snacked on free doughnuts and cupfuls of coffee. Those attendees included some well-known names: R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis interim superintendent Michael Goar, former Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson–who introduced herself as an educational consultant, and early charter school legislator Ember Reichgott-Junge. 

Later, as I tried to capture my thoughts on the event, scenes from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s early comic series, Life is Hell, popped into my head. One of Groening’s most unforgettable comics featured repeat characters Akbar and Jeff as owners of an exclusive Airport Snack Bar. Their tagline? “Where the Elite Meet to Eat Reheated Meaty Treats.”

MN Comeback meetings could be seen as the place where the Elite Meet to Promote Reheated Education Reform Treats.

Let me explain.

MN Comeback is the latest attempt by the Minneapolis Foundation and other high-end funders to push a specific education reform agenda on the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2006-2007, this involved working through the Itasca Project to put a McKinsey & Company-written, market-based reform plan in place for the Minneapolis schools.

That plan hasn’t amounted to much, although it did help usher in a Leaning Tower of Pisa-like stack of silver bullet initiatives and priorities, including an influx of non-education trained, transformational staffers. (Just read through the district’s “Human Capital” department’s recent hires for a few choice examples of this.)

Suzy Redo 2

MN Comeback PPT slide

Then, 2013 brought the awkward RESET Education campaign, which looked like another meeting of the moneyed and powerful minds, brought together to transform the lowly Minneapolis Public Schools. 

RESET promoted a grab bag of educational quick fix solutions, all wrapped up in a neat marketing plan. Here are the five gap-destroying strategies RESET settled on:

  • Real-time Use of Data
  • Expectations not Excuses
  • Strong Leadership
  • Effective Teaching
  • Time on Task

Like a reheated airport snack bar hot dog, these strategies may look good from afar, but under close inspection, they are not very satisfying. The first and most obvious reason is, these are top down, catchy solutions cooked up in boardrooms and “expert” planning sessions–far from the sometimes distressing world of actual public school classrooms. (Another obvious reason? Childhood poverty–which is tied so tightly to race here–has deepened and nearly doubled in Minnesota in the past 20 years, just as funding for public education dropped, and money for families in need stagnated.)

And that is probably why RESET quietly retreated to the background, only to be reborn as MN Comeback. The solutions being promoted are the same; they just come under a different banner now. 

Alongside RESET, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted something called the Education Transformation Initiative (ETI). The ETI was awarded a $200,000 “education ecosystem” grant from the local Bush Foundation as recently as 2014, but a MN Comeback funder I talked with at the March 1 meeting said that the ETI had been transformed into MN Comeback. 

The language and promise of the ETI–of transformational, data driven, union-free policies for public schools–was supported by the same tight-knit group of non-educationy heavy hitters, including the Walton Foundation (Wal-Mart), the reform-happy Joyce Foundation, and the local Robins Kaplan Miller Ciresi Foundation.

Suzy Redo 1

MN Comeback Team Roster

The ETI was staffed by former McKinsey & Company consultant Amy Hertel, through her position at the Minneapolis Foundation. In 2015, Hertel became Vice President of Network Impact for something called Education Cities, which is yet another reiteration of Gates/Walton/Broad Foundation money being used to prop up non-classroom careers for people who swear they only want all kids to be able to “access great public schools.” 

The ETI became MN Comeback, which is now part of Hertel’s group, Education Cities. MN Comeback is managed here by Al Fan, formerly of the short-lived group, Charter School Partners. At a fall, 2015 MN Comeback meeting, Fan admitted that he’s “only been at this” education reform stuff for 5 or 6 years, after a career in marketing, I believe, at General Mills.

This may explain the vagueness that is MN Comeback. The group–which apparently has raised $30+ million to support its campaign–says it wants to bring “30,000 rigorous and relevant” seats to Minneapolis by 2025. But Fan could not explain what “relevant” means, and, so far, “rigorous” only means the boosting of test scores. 

The MN Comeback funder I chatted with on March 1 was a nice person, whose professed good intentions I can’t argue with. But he did say that he knows little about education, and that one main thing he thought was holding the Minneapolis schools back was that parents just didn’t have enough info about all of their school choice options. “If the school across the street from you isn’t good, you should be able to go a mile away to a better option,” he explained.

Looks like we can add a naive belief in the transformational power of school choice to MN Comeback’s menu.

Up next: A closer look at MN Comeback’s partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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