Tag Archives: education reform

DeVos Didn’t Start the Fire

February 6, 2017

Betsy DeVos is everywhere, filling up Twitter feeds and Facebook sidebars with links to the latest, most outrageous evidence of her desperation to become our next secretary of education. 

Ed Patru, Friend of Betsy DeVos

The tabs on my computer are cluttered with articles describing DeVos’s criminally incompetent push to make our schools great again through unfettered privatization plans. She can be linked to ALEC, fraud and a personal disdain for public schools. She has created opportunities for scammers who want to make a “boatload of money” on public ed without the hassle of accountability. She has a prolific Friend of Betsy© in Ed Patru, and, when that is not enough, she has provided a way for other people to get paid to shill for her.

In our new, enticing world of alternative facts, DeVos will most likely be confirmed tomorrow, as the search for one more–just one more–“Republican with integrity” appears to have come to a Dark Money dead end

But DeVos just might be the rock bottom this country needs to hit, in terms of our dependence on plutocrat-driven school privatization schemes. Her preference for an unregulated, unrestrained market of publicly funded private and religious schools, as well as charter schools, has embarrassed even her fellow billionaire buyers of influence and school choice–Eli Broad and Arthur Rock

For years, Eli Broad’s name has been synonymous with the expedited take down of our nation’s public school system. Using wads of cash, and leaked secret plans, Broad has unleashed anti-union charter schools (high performing, always high performing) and a superintendent training academy for those with little to no background in public education. People like Betsy DeVos, for example. 

Rock, on the other hand, has occupied a quieter place in education reform while still wielding a DeVos-like level of undue influence. He is a venture capitalist from California who sits on Teach for America’s board of directors, has funded a sketchy chain of “blended learning” charter schools (Rocketship) and done his best to upend local school board elections around the country. In Minneapolis, for example, Rock has donated money to pro-reform school board candidates with connections to Teach for America. (And though Al Franken flayed DeVos for her ignorance around key education issues, he has also employed Teach for America alums as staffers–something Rock has funded)

Rock is an active philanthropist in education reform. From 2006 to 2008, Rock contributed $16.5 million to Teach for America. He also donated $1.5 million to Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the country’s largest network of charter schools.

–Angel Au-Yeung, Forbes, February 2017

If these guys don’t approve of DeVos, then we know something’s up. What separates DeVos from Rock and Broad, is, perhaps, her religious fervor, accompanied by a zest for vouchers. Vouchers, of course, would–in an idealized, free market world–make private schools eligible for public funding. In other words, they could threaten the market share Broad and Rock are trying to carve out through the expansion of charter school networks. (Beware! Vouchers are morphing into scholarship and “tax credit” bills.)

To be fair, Broad has also objected to DeVos’s devil-may-care embrace of for-profit charter schools, something Broad says he abhors. In a February 1 letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Charles Schumer, Broad touched on the most embarrassing moments of DeVos’s confirmation hearing. “We must have a Secretary of Education who believes in public education,” Broad wrote, before mentioning DeVos’s less than artful dodge on the question of whether or not schools should be gun-free zones.

In short, DeVos has created an opening for the likes of Broad and Rock, allowing them to position themselves as the moderate voice of education reform–despite their track records. DeVos is the unflattering mirror image of venture edu-philanthropists, and lurks as a no holds barred representative of the worst possible outcome (see Detroit) of their market-based reform plans.Image result for mirror mirror on the wall

Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, was not ideologically far from DeVos, yet stood as a kinder, gentler, Democratic version of her. He did not offend the way she does, but he should have. Or, to paraphrase Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech at the Congressional Progressive Caucus, our moment of crisis did not begin with Betsy DeVos’s nomination. We were already in crisis. 

Education policy has been stuck in an Orwellian war on the “achievement gap” for decades, while public resources have mostly shrunk and segregation has increased. DeVos didn’t create that, though she has certainly capitalized on it. If her confirmation goes through as expected, the public–and policy makers–should capitalize on our awakened understanding of the cost of putting billionaires on a mission in charge of our 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!


Minneapolis School Board Campaign Finance Reports Reveal…?

November 5, 2016

In 2012, Minneapolis residents got an education reform wake-up call in the candidacy of Josh Reimnitz. Reimnitz, then a Teach for America alum new to Minneapolis, won a spot on the Minneapolis school board after attracting thousands of dollars in campaign funds–the most, at close to $40,000, ever seen in what was once a low-profile race.

As Reimnitz’s campaign war chest grew, observers worried that the Minneapolis school board race was becoming “nationalized.” And, of course, it was. Just after Reimnitz’s 2012 victory, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt made this observation:

“Reimnitz won with a tidal wave of spending that set a record for a Minneapolis board race. Some came from friends but, even more important, from people he’d never met who are pushing a school-reform agenda.”

2012 was just the beginning.

In 2014, hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money flooded into the Minneapolis school board race, mostly through the cleverly named Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund. This Fund, which operates as a political action committee, was set up by then-MinnCAN director, Daniel Sellers. Riding a wave of plutocrat interest in local school board elections, Sellers was able to attract large donations from some decidedly non-progressive sources. 

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Billionaire education reform advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and Teach for America funder, plumped up the Fund’s coffers, as did local Republican party affiliates such as Ben Whitney and Edina resident Bonnie McGrath, who reportedly became deeply alarmed about the state of public education after viewing 2012’s reform blockbuster, Waiting for Superman.

In 2014, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund tried a strong-arm tactic by spending money on negative campaign literature, in favor of school board candidates Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano, and against incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. The strategy turned the race into an ugly, last-minute smear campaign against Gagnon, who nonetheless retained her seat on the board. Samuels also won. (The Fund has around $12, 000 in the bank. Final 2016 campaign finance reports, which would show whether or not that money gets spent, will not be available until January, 2017.)

The combination of Samuels and Reimnitz on the Minneapolis school board has not led to a puppet-like adherence to a reform agenda. Samuels seems like more of an outlier, voting against Michael Goar–the presumed favorite of the local reform community–during his bid to become the district’s superintendent. He also voted in favor of the board’s 2015 move to cancel its contract with the controversial Reading Horizons company.

Conversely, Reimnitz did vote for Goar. He was also one of two board members (along with Carla Bates) to vote against the decision to cancel the contract with Reading Horizons, whose curriculum was deemed racist and offensive by many in the community. If reform-supported candidates are supposed to bring group think to the board, it hasn’t happened yet.

2016 Campaign Finance Reports

Still, the education reform crowd appears to be betting on two candidates in this year’s school board race: Reimnitz and his counterpart on the board, Tracine Asberry, who is running for re-election in District 6. Neither one received the endorsement of either the DFL or the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, perhaps endearing them to reform interests. Reimnitz is running against Bob Walser in District 4, while Asberry is facing a challenge from Ira Jourdain, who first ran for a seat on the board in 2014, and spoke out then against the “dark money” impacting the school board race.

Reimnitz’s most recent campaign finance report shows that he has raised close to $15,000 as of November 1. That is significantly less than he had in 2012, but currently more than any other candidate. The traces of reform money can still be seen on Reimnitz’s 2016 report, with donations from many Teach for America and charter school affiliates. Also telling: Reimnitz has attracted the support of wealthy Republican donor Ben Whitney and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate and charter school supporter, Cam Winton.

Reimnitz has also received money from Tad Piper. Piper, along with Ben Whitney, is a preeminent funder and supporter of local education reform initiatives, such as MinnCAN and now, Minnesota Comeback. Minnesota Comeback, which I have written about extensively on this blog, is a project of the national Education Cities movement, with a school choice-centered education reform agenda funded by billionaire philanthropists. The goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s website, is to bring “30, 000 rigorous and relevant seats” to the Minneapolis area by 2025.

Reimnitz’s challenger, Bob Walser, has taken in about $8,000 in donations since August. It appears he is getting support mostly from District 4 residents, with a few out-of-state donations listed (in the past, Walser has said he has a wide network from his years as a traveling musician and teacher.)

Asberry’s campaign finance reports from 2016 are less detailed, with her most recent report listing only five individual contributors. The biggest reported donation she received was $300 from Matt Kramer, former Co-CEO of Teach for America. Asberry’s previous campaign report offers more information about her finances, including support from neighbors and local businesses, as well as from names familiar to those who follow education politics. This includes Lynnell Mickelsen, who often writes about education reform, and Kate Sattler, a supporter of the now-defunct MinnCAN organization.

In an email exchange from September, Asberry noted that she has a long-standing working relationship with Sattler, who had children in the Minneapolis schools and lives in Asberry’s district. Asberry also maintains that she has “deep, diverse, and committed support…from so many District 6 and MPS families,” whose names can be found on her campaign website. In a charged atmosphere fueled by reformer vs. union narratives, it is worth remembering that support for Asberry may be as much about efforts to defeat the union’s endorsed candidate, Ira Jourdain, as about any hope that Asberry will toe a reformer-drawn line. (Asberry did not vote in favor of maintaining the district’s contract with Reading Horizons, nor did she support Goar’s candidacy for superintendent.)

Jourdain, like Walser and the other two DFL and union-endorsed candidates, Kerry Jo Felder (running in District 2) and Kim Ellison (citywide), has received support in the form of mailings, phone banking and coordinated campaign events. Felder’s opponent, Kimberly Caprini, has less than $1800 in funds, and lists no donations over the mandated reporting amount of $100. Ellison has also taken in minimal funds, perhaps because her challenger, Doug Mann, does not appear to have launched a vigorous campaign. All campaign finance reports are available on the Hennepin County elections website.

Reform Tactics Shift

The influence of Minneapolis’s well-heeled education reform community is less visible this time around, but no less present. Minnesota Comeback, which grew out of previous philanthropic efforts to guide the Minneapolis Public Schools, has helped fund an election year side project called Animate the Race. With a promise of neutrality, Animate the Race has put money into hosting school board forums and providing social media coverage of this year’s race. It is being run by Daniel Sellers, who ran MinnCAN and 2014’s Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

On November 3, Animate the Race held a school board candidate event at the Children’s Theater. It was a lush affair, and a reminder of the good things philanthropy has provided for Minneapolis–such as the Children’s Theater and its incredible Neighborhood Bridges program. Tad Piper was there, circling the crowd, as was Al Fan, current director of Minnesota Comeback. (All current candidates, except Jourdain and Doug Mann were in attendance. Jourdain said he was busy door knocking in his district that night.)

There were not a lot of other people there. just pockets of reform supporters and little clusters of teachers, neighbors and organizers who don’t neatly fit into that category. All were treated to a sumptious-looking buffet of shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fruit kabobs and giant brownie wedges. There must have been tons of food left over. I hope the Children’s Theater staff who worked the event got to take some of it home.

Animate the Race’s forum started off hot, with District 6 candidate Bob Walser saying he felt “manipulated” by being invited to an event billed as “non-partisan” but organized by the very person (Sellers, I am assuming, although Walser didn’t name him) that brought in hundreds of thousands of outside, “dark money” in 2014. Walser’s attempt to lead with this drew a harsh rebuke from some Animate the Race supporters, and threatened to throw the whole forum down an ugly, irreversible path. (Animate the Race is also funded by Minnesota Comeback, whose donors have given money to Walser’s rival, Reimnitz.)

But Walser recovered. So did the moderator, Reynolds-Anthony Harris, whose company, Lyceum Partners + design, is listed as an Animate the Race supporter. The atmosphere was barbed, but worth sitting through. At one point, candidates expounded on teachers they considered inspirational. Interestingly, most of them mentioned Minneapolis teachers like Crystal Spring and Flory Sommers, who both recently faced disciplinary action from the district’s HR department after advocating on behalf of racial justice concerns. 

If those are the kind of teachers our current and future board members admire, then perhaps there is hope. But the specter of the billionaire-crafted education reform agenda still lurks around the edges of Minneapolis, waiting, perhaps, for the right combination of funders or school board members to shake up the “status quo.”

Minneapolis: A “Recovery” District?

In a series of complex questions, which the candidates were supposed to answer with a quick yes or no, the moderator asked whether or not the hopeful board members would, once seated, vote to turn Minneapolis into a “recovery” school district–should district test scores and other, undefined measures fail to rise significantly.

This was the moment, and everyone in the room knew it. People rushed to turn their cell phone videos on, to capture the candidates’ responses to this loaded question. A recovery school district, like the ones operating in New Orleans and Memphis, are built around the “transformational” principles of neoliberal education policy. A 2013 article in the Atlantic about the takeover of the Memphis schools describes recovery districts this way: 

The city’s schools are on the vanguard of controversial changes reshaping urban education nationally, including decentralized control, more charter schools, increased use of data to determine which schools stay open, and a greater reliance on new teachers who come through alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teacher Residency

FEMA photo

FEMA photo

In New Orleans, there are no public schools left, only a landscape of charters. Hurricane Katrina created the ideal circumstances for a complete takeover of the city’s schools, according to a 2014 In These Times magazine investigation

With the public-school bureaucracy out of the way, powerhouses in the reform movement, such as the Walton and Gates foundations, came calling. In a 2006 interview with Education Next magazine, Mayor Ray Nagin put it this way: “They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans.’ ”

And they did. 

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision,” writes Naomi Klein in her landmark 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. She holds up the takeover as a prime example of “disaster capitalism”: “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

This is the reform framework hanging in the background of the Minneapolis school board race. When the question about recovery school districts was posed at the Animate the Race forum, the candidates seemed frozen in surprise and uncertainty. No one seemed to know exactly what the moderator was actually asking them to do or say, or perhaps, they did not want to answer the question in a public setting. All either said no or abstained from answering, but in the hubbub, it wasn’t clear who said what.

A further, unspoken question hung over the room: Whose agenda is this?

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!



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!



Pasi Paradox: Finding Our Own Finland

February 20, 2016

Last week, on a frigid but beautiful day in Duluth, MN, I was fortunate enough to spend the morning with Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg. He was in Duluth to give the keynote address at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) conference, and I was there to interview him.

But I couldn’t. I sat and listened to Pasi give his keynote speech, and I listened to him give a more casual, hour-long group session about the state of education policy today, in Finland and elsewhere. I also sat with him at lunch, and chatted with him after the plates of pasta had been cleared away.

Pasi is a vegetarian, like me, and says he is on his way to becoming vegan, due to his concerns over climate change. Honestly, I would rather interview him about that then take another painful plunge down the “this is what Finland did to make their education system one of the world’s best” path. 

Finnish Education Framework

It is painful because there is so much Finland has done that the United States seems to have no interest in doing, even though, as I have heard Pasi say before, many of Finland’s great ideas (and practices) about education reform have come from research done in the United States, generally, and from Minnesota, specifically.

That’s why I couldn’t really interview Pasi. His ideas have been mined extensively, and rightfully so. He’s funny, warm, smart and right on, when it comes to how to actually create a vibrant, successful, equitable education system. That is why, like many others who follow education, I have done pretty much everything I could to soak up Sahlberg’s lessons, except move to Finland (which, I will admit, I have considered). But emulation is not enough. We have to move past him, frankly, and find our own Finland. 

And, no, such a thing–our own Finland–won’t be started with a grant from the Walton Foundation. Finland’s education revolution started with a commitment, which is and must be ongoing, to eradicating poverty and inequality, so that it isn’t just some people’s kids who get access to such current luxuries as play-based learning and critical thinking.

In the United States, such a commitment would have to be paired with a concrete plan to share power with historically marginalized (or, historically looted, some would say) communities, to avoid the colonization and exploitation patterns so often repeated in today’s market-driven education reform efforts. How should we do that? Let’s start with asking the most marginalized what they think. 

The Finnish education system redesign was also built around an equity framework that, in essence, provides an individualized learning plan for each child–and not just the kids who get special ed services, or the kids whose parents can pay for tutors. And all Finnish kids eat lunch at school. They have health care, dental care, and their parents are given parental leave. This is love, and that is where change-making education reform begins.

Could we create that here? And will it last in Finland? Like most European countries, Finland is currently experiencing a values-testing “migrant crisis.” In 2015, it took on more than 30,000 people seeking refuge; most years, they get less than 800. What will Finland do now? Will the “world’s best” education system also be provided to these newcomers?

While we wait and watch, we should get busy building our own Finland.

…rich parents want creativity and flexibility and diverse curricula. They want individualized discipline (if they want discipline at all). They’d have very little patience for chanting in classes and being told what to do with their children at home. But, you know, “those people,” they’re not “like us.”

Ira David Socol

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McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis: Strategery Sinks In

January 27, 2016

Background: As the Minneapolis Public Schools moves through a difficult superintendent search, I am taking a look back at how we got to this moment. Here is part one: McKinsey & Co. Mind Meld.

In 2007, McKinsey & Co. consultants–through the local Itasca Project–wrote a strategic plan for the Minneapolis Public Schools, at the invitation of the district and the city’s school board. The plan received an enthusiastic introduction from Minneapolis’s then-superintendent, Bill Green, who stated the plan was “…grounded in the best practices of school districts around the country.” (Green was steering Minneapolis through another moment of crisis, after the short, painful tenure of Broad-trained superintendent Thandiwe Peebles.)

Green’s intro to the plan declared that these “best practices”–said to be the product of months of community input–represented “an unwavering commitment to bold ideals and bold ideas.”

Why did it sell so well in Minneapolis? For one thing, it was 2007, and the broader global education reform movement was not well understood. And, true to the “McKinsey Way,” it was marketed well. A Minneapolis parent, recalling the plan’s rollout, remembers this: “It was neat, orderly, and presented well, with nice bullet points.”

The nine-point plan was bold–and contained the roots of today’s increasingly problematic free-market, top down, numbers based approach to rapidly raising student “achievement” (which can only be defined through something easily measured: standardized test scores). It promised all Minneapolis kids would be college-ready in just five years, in a “Field of Dreams” sort of way. If you say it, it will happen.

Here are some highlights of the McKinsey/Minneapolis strategy:

One – Restart and/or bring in other high quality schools to replace the bottom 25 percent; unleash high-performing schools. 

  • Translation: competition and choice will fix what ails Minneapolis schools. Missing from this equation: as long as schools continue to be sorted and ranked according to standardized test scores, there will always be a “bottom 25 percent.” What then?
  • This pairs well with recommendation number eight: Commit to supporting a network of great schools for all Minneapolis kids. A 2007 article about the plan made this point: “The report recommends that MPS ‘adopt a new mindset’ towards competition (such as charter and private schools).”
  • The first casualties (which happened just months before board approval of the McKinsey plan): Five schools in historically underserved north Minneapolis, and one elementary school near the University of Minnesota.
  • The push to embrace competition as a key school improvement strategy is still defining local education policy. First, Minneapolis officials signed the “District-Charter Collaboration Compact,” which has sputtered along meekly. Today, we have the district’s Community Partnership Schools plan, which will require all schools to adhere to district-created test score guidelines, but will allow for more “autonomy” in governance. Looming in the background is MN Comeback–a well-funded group that would like to see 30,000 “rigorous and relevant seats” in Minneapolis by 2025.

Two – Raise expectations and academic rigor for all students, aligning pre-K-12 programs to college readiness goal.

  • Rigor and expectation-raising, in the wrong hands (people who are not trained in education and/or child development), has come to mean the pushing down of narrow, standardized academic work–even into preschool. We have seen this in Minneapolis, through the McKinsey-led implementation of “focused” instruction (FI). Here is a 2013 article I wrote about FI’s insertion into Minneapolis’s early childhood classrooms: “Playtime or focused instruction for three year-olds?”
  • Minneapolis reporter Steve Brandt described FI this way in 2014: “Focused instruction comes from a national movement to create common standards for what should be taught in each subject. That movement has been supported by some politicians, education advocacy groups and often by business interests.” (Conspiracy theory or flow chart? Check out this visual of how McKinsey & Co. and other for-profit companies connect to the standards and testing movement in the U.S.)
  • Focused Instruction is also part of a McKinsey-style move to exert greater control (management) over what teachers and students are doing, through the use of benchmark or interim tests, and the data collection that comes from that. 
  • In 2014, a Star Tribune article reported that focused instruction was not working (that is, it was not miraculously leading to a rise in test scores).

Five – Set clear expectations for all staff at all levels; reward successes and develop or remove low performers.

  • Successes should be rewarded in education, and “low performers” should be handled. But, again, who gets to define either the criteria or the consequences in these cases? And what do people–like McKinsey consultants–without experience or expertise in education know about what success looks like, in education? 
  • McKinsey & Co. consultants are notorious for using layoffs as a path to corporate profits (or district savings?). So, if McKinsey & Co. was sent in to guide the “strategic redirection” of the Minneapolis Public Schools, on behalf of the business-minded Itasca Project…then a recommendation to “remove low performers” was probably a given. Low performers–according to student test scores–are chaff, ripe for the sorting. 
  • McKinsey & Co. is a management consultant firm, not a labor consultant firm. Their trademark approach to reform is to cut costs, pursue efficiency and focus on all that can be “measured and managed.” Or, as a 2007 article about the McKinsey strategic plan noted: “Like schools and principals, underperforming teachers could be replaced.”

There are some benign aspects of the 2007 McKinsey plan, such as the reminder to “transform relationships and partner with families.” This is important, but everybody says this, all the time. What would real transformation look like, and would it be outlined in a McKinsey & Co. strategic plan? What if the community had been asked to write a plan for the Minneapolis schools instead?

But the community wasn’t asked to lead. Instead, McKinsey/Itasca placed one of their own–consultant Jill Stever-Zeitlin–at the helm of the Minneapolis Public Schools, to try to force, or ensure, a business-like “redirection” of the district.

This is how Stever-Zeitlin’s 2008 jump from McKinsey/Itasca to Minneapolis was explained to me by the district:

Prior to being hired as an employee, Ms. Stever-Zeitlin was an employee of Itasca, and was loaned by Itasca to MPS.  This began in 2008 and lasted through June 30, 2012.  There is no written contract with Itasca for this period.  This was an agreement between then Superintendent Bill Green and the Itasca organization.  Itasca paid Ms. Stever-Zeitlin’s salary during 2008 – 2010, and 58% of her salary from January 1 – June 30, 2011.  

The position she held was created for her, since it was this special arrangement made by Itasca to support the district.

I am stuck on what it means to “loan” a human being to someone or something else, but I will move on.

Stever-Zeitlin began working directly in the Minneapolis schools in 2008, but was not an official district employee until 2011. There was no contract. No public oversight. Just an ambitious attempt to be sure the McKinsey-esque redesign of Minneapolis would go forward as planned.

McKinsey and Co. did not pay Stever-Zeitlin’s salary, however. The local Robins, Kaplan, Miller,  and Ciresi (RKMC) Foundation for Children did, through a grant to the Itasca Project. 

The McKinsey plan, and Stever-Zeitlin’s undocumented administrative position, were just the beginning for the RKMC. Their philanthropic support swung the door to education reform wide open in Minneapolis.

Up next: The ties that bind Minneapolis to the market-based education reform movement.

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Minneapolis superintendent update: Paez seeks coffee, input

January 4, 2016

Dr. Sergio Paez is coming to town, and he wants to have coffee with you.

In an email sent on December 31, Paez–the current candidate of choice for superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools–announced that he will be in Minneapolis for two days, starting January 4. 

Dr. Sergio Paez; Photo by Don Treager

In the email, Paez said he plans to hold “2 coffee hours” while in Minneapolis. The first will be on Tuesday, January 5 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Avenue Eatery on West Broadway Avenue. The second will be Wednesday, January 6 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Fireroast Cafe in south Minneapolis. 

Paez says he is coming to Minneapolis to “be able to talk to people about anything they have in mind and to learn more about MN in the process.” His email makes no mention of the fact that, although the Minneapolis school board chose him as the district’s next superintendent in December of 2015, he is now in the unexpected position of having to fight for the job.

Immediately after the board named Paez their top choice at a December 7 meeting, troubling reports surfaced from Paez’s days as superintendent of the Holyoke, Massachusetts schools. The reports, completed by the Massachusetts Disability Law Center, detail allegations of abuse at Holyoke’s Peck School program for special education students.

Paez was not directly implicated in these allegations, and maintains that he and his staff acted properly when informed of the reported abuse. Also, the Holyoke teachers union has questioned the law center’s report, and recently told a Massachusetts news station that “low staffing levels and limited resources” are part of the problem at Peck.

Still, it seems Paez is coming to Minneapolis–on his own dime, I am told–to salvage his chances of becoming Minneapolis’s superintendent.

Maybe it will work.

If Paez creates a lot of warm fuzzies by learning “first hand what the community believes is important to transform the district”–a goal he expressed in his recent email–then perhaps the board will be persuaded to forget their cold feet and go ahead with contract negotiations, which were suspended after the Holyoke allegations surfaced.

Meanwhile, my thoughts keep returning to a late December MinnPost piece by local writer and teacher Nicole Helget about the “leadership crisis” in our schools. It isn’t specifically about Paez, but is worth considering as Minneapolis tries to move forward.

Nicole Helget; Photo by Jason Miller

Helget’s piece starts with a bang, hitting readers between the eyes by zeroing in on the “crisis in administration from K-12 to higher education.” She continues on, calling school districts “kingdoms” where predetermined decisions are made behind closed doors, and subsequently “fobbed” upon “teachers, students, and communities.”

There are many blows that sting in Helget’s piece, including the idea that putting a woman or person of color in charge should bring about meaningful change, but often doesn’t–thanks to hidden gatekeepers who are seeking to perpetuate, and not alter, institutionalized racism and sexism.

Helget then ends with this: schools need new leadership styles, and not just new leaders. “We have to change the culture of education,” she writes, in order to achieve this:

Our goal in education includes preparing people who can work, of course, but our goal…is to prepare people to adapt to all the changing aspects of our world and to help build the next economy, not become slaves to the current one.

The Minneapolis school board is scheduled to decide Paez’s fate at a regular January 12 meeting, which will include the standard public comment period. If you’ve got time this week, you know where Paez will be.

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Goar is out, Paez is in: Education politics shift in Minneapolis

December 8, 2015

Welcome, Dr. Sergio Paez, to the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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Dr. Paez

Many people were shocked to learn that Paez was chosen to become Minneapolis’ next superintendent, over interim candidate and hometown favorite (for some), Michael Goar. 

The decision was announced at an exhaustingly drawn out special school board meeting on December 7, where a long list of desired superintendent characteristics was sweated over in great detail by the board, with almost no indication–until the very end–that Paez would get the job.

The board room was mostly quiet throughout the nearly three hour meeting, despite sign-wielding protestors, who were demanding the board restart the search. These protestors were–randomly–clustered in seats right in front of the silently observing, stalwart Students for Education Reform (SFER) crew that has been present at many recent MPS meetings.

It was an interesting and telling mix, as well as a preview of the various factions Paez will encounter here in Minneapolis.

SFER is a national education reform organization, started in 2009, supposedly by a couple of nice college kids out of Princeton University. Fact check, please! SFER is simply another super spongy Astroturf group seeking to cash in on, and remake, public schools by declaring them failures, and then heavily promoting market-based “fixes,” such as more school choice, more “innovation,” less tenure, etc. 

CT SFER kids rallying for charter schools. Edushyster photo.

SFER has outposts at colleges around the country, kind of like the Sierra Club or Amnesty International, where they’ve been able to attract (and financially reward) young, idealistic students who will, perhaps unwittingly, carry water for the very adult interests that are pulling SFER’s strings. 

I am sure the young people who get hired by SFER to put tape over their mouths during union-district negotiating sessions, or to shill for certain candidates during school board elections, or to march in favor of judging teachers by their students’ test scores, are probably sucked in by a desire to do something about the real educational inequities and institutionalized racism that exists in our schools, and, of course, our society at large. 

Their activism and youthful desire to change the world provides a nice cover for SFER’s behind the scenes machinations, which revolve around a top-down campaign funded exclusively by very wealthy adults who know how to put their best foot forward, in order to conduct business as usual (with some help, of course; SFER, the national org, has a fancy New York PR firm on a retainer).

Conneticut blogger Jonathon Pelto has written two recent investigative pieces on SFER. Here’s Pelto’s take on what this group is all about:

Dedicated to promoting the privatization of public education, more taxpayer funds for privately owned, but publicly funded charter schools, the Common Core, the Common Core testing scheme and a host of anti-teacher initiatives, Students for Education Reform, Inc. (SFER) was created in late 2009,  according to their narrative, by a couple of undergraduate students at Princeton University.

Claiming to have over 100 chapters across the country, the ‘student run’ advocacy group has, as of late last summer, collected more than $7.3 million since its inception to fund their ‘education reform’ activities.

Oh! That explains how they can pay students to camp out at excrutiatingly long school board meetings. 

SFER was a presence during the 2014 Minneapolis school board race, and they will be present again, in 2016, along with their compatriots from MinnCAN, Educators for Excellence, Teach for America, and other well-heeled, decidedly non-populist reform groups.

But who else will be present? The group of local activists seated in front of the SFER crew at Monday’s school board meeting hopefully will be. Restart the Search

This group was small, and consisted of parents, teachers, and school support staff–and at least one student, who looked far too young to be part of SFER. Despite its small size, the group came wielding a petition that circulated through Minneapolis over the weekend, declaring all three finalists for Minneapolis’ superintendent inadequate, and too, well, too SFER or MinnCAN-like. Too corporate. Too big business. Too wedded to the money and priorities of outside entities with a scripted agenda.

Without any hedge fund cash, or any design help from an out of town PR firm, this local petition gathered 918 signatures in just a few days, asking the school board to restart its superintendent search.

Now, I see, it is up to 950 names.

The petition didn’t work, in one sense, because the school board did not vote to restart the search process.

But that goal was a long shot, at this stage in the game. The school board members themselves are clearly exhausted, and stretched thin by the months-long search. They are only human, after all, and paid virtually nothing to wade through the politics, policies, and shifting priorities that are part of the job.

Related image

Michael Goar

And to start over would look fractious, and perhaps further feed the failure and dysfunction narrative that spins so constantly over our public schools. (Remember Netflix CEO and billionaire Reed Hastings’ call to end democratically elected school boards? He is not alone in wishing for this.)

But it did work, in another, perhaps more important sense: Michael Goar was not chosen to become superintendent (the petition is full of quite pointed commentary on Goar’s tenure in MPS). Just three of the nine board members–Siad Ali, Carla Bates, and Josh Reimnitz–voted for Goar; all of the other board members wanted Paez. And this is significant, as Goar’s year-long trial run as interim superintendent was controversial, and disruptive, in the eyes of many.

Paez is undoubtedly only as human as Goar is, and will probably not offer any immediate, magical fixes for what ails the Minneapolis schools. And what ails it most, according to last night’s board meeting, is a loss of trust in MPS’s leadership, and a need for some relationship repair.

“We need someone who can bring our community together,” and “rebuild trust,” Tracine Asberry told MPR News last night. She did not seem to be alone in that sentiment.

And, not insignificantly, Paez was favored by at least two board members–Rebecca Gagnon and Nelson Inz–because they were impressed with his knowledge of teaching and learning, and what they saw as Paez’s commitment to educating the “whole child,” and not just the portion of the child who may or may not perform well on test day. (Board members also touted his success with ELL students).

We don’t know yet what Paez will do when he takes over as superintendent. Will he make shocking missteps (data walls, anyone?), or will he build bridges? While Paez was superintendent in Holyoke, MA, the district was taken over by the state. Could that happen here? Some people in Minnesota would love to see MPS go down, and be replaced by a New Orleans-style network of “high performing seats,” rather than schools. We should all be aware of this.

And will he know–or learn–how to put a racial and social justice framework first, without bowing to the hidden demands of groups like SFER?

Proceed with caution, Dr. Paez. 

While Students for Education Reform (SFER) will pontificate that they are “all about the children,” their political activities in Minneapolis, Denver and elsewhere tells a very different story.

–Jonathon Pelto

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Noah Branch for Superintendent

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Whiz kid Noah Branch

December 3, 2015

Kids say the darndest things. Take Noah Branch, for example. Branch is the first student to have a spot on the Minneapolis school board, and some of the adults who let that happen might be regretting it.

Today, during the final throes of the interview process for the three Minneapolis superintendent finalists, Branch dropped this question on interim superintendent Michael Goar:

You have squandered the past year. Why should we chose you and not someone who has educational background who can fix things?

Wow. This question seemed to make Goar visibly upset, and led him to declare that, if he is allowed to become the permanent superintendent, he will need to hire a CEO to help him get the job done. I am sure the job is tough, but a CEO sounds expensive, and very business-like. Didn’t they used to call this job “Assistant Superintendent”?

Branch’s question also launched Goar into a defense of a presumed weakness: He has no teaching experience. 

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John Deasy in the board room. Or is that the Broad room?

There are lots of other urban superintendents who haven’t had teaching experience, Goar stated. He then used New York, Los Angeles, and Memphis as examples (he also referenced them during a community meet and greet on December 2).

If those are his trailblazers, then we’re in trouble. Los Angeles is currently looking for a new superintendent, after John Deasy–the one with no teaching experience–resigned under a cloud of iPad-fueled scandal. LA is also having to fight off a virtual takeover by billionaire Eli Broad, and his plan to put “half of LAUSD students in charter schools in eight years.” (Don’t worry–Deasy enjoyed a soft landing after being forced out of LA. He now works for the “Broad Center for School Management Systems,” funded by Broad himself.)

Memphis does have a superintendent, Dorsey E. Hopson, with no teaching experience. Instead, Hopson is a lawyer who helped guide Memphis through its conversion from an independent district to a member of the “Achievement School District.” See this article: “When Outsiders Take Over Schools.”

And then there is Joel Klein, the former New York superintendent that Goar mentioned by name as also having no background in teaching. In a review of Klein’s 2014 book about his educational prowess, education professor Aaron Pallas offers this insight:

What…are the lessons that Klein offers to the rest of the country? If U.S. schools in general are failing, as he asserts, what are some possible action steps? Recounting the endless reorganizations in New York City, the expansion of charter schools, and the positioning of school principals as mini-CEOs provides little guidance for the typical school district or school leader.

Branch has also asked another pointed, “Emperor’s New Clothes” question during these weeks of superintendent candidate interviews: “How do you know the Acceleration 2020 plan will work?” Acceleration 2020 is the oft-cited, “get our numbers up” strategic plan for the Minneapolis schools.

Maybe Branch would consider becoming Minneapolis’ next superintendent.

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Reading Horizons and the Minnesota Humanities Center: A tale of two reform models

October 7, 2015

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Public Schools entered into a purchase agreement (contract would not be the right word) with Utah-based phonics and software producer Reading Horizons. 

All hell then broke loose, for reasons I have been documenting on this blog since August. One of those key reasons–beyond the racist, sexist, classist, etc., materials Reading Horizons provided–was the fact that “Faith” is listed as the number one “Core Value” of the for-profit company’s employees:

We believe in a higher purpose to life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives.

Meanwhile, a few years ago, in a parallel universe that I definitely want to learn more about, the Omaha Public Schools entered into a long-term relationship with the non-profit Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC). They are still working together today.

Both school districts–Omaha and Minneapolis–have been seeking change, reform, and better outcomes for students, families, and staff, and both have had to grapple with potentially flood-inducing waves of changein terms of who they serve and how they serve them.

Parallel universes!

Both have been faced with a pressing choice: drown, or learn a new way to swim.

Here’s a study in contrasts: to survive, the Minneapolis Public Schools, has, among other things, chosen to do business with Reading Horizons, a company that many in the community have objected to–mightily.

The Omaha schools, on the other hand, appear to be putting the community at the forefront of their reform efforts, under the guidance of the MHC.

I find this fascinating, and worth watching. 

First, another similarity: both Reading Horizons and the MHC have a list of “Core Values” on their respective websites. Both put these values–either directly or obliquely–at the center of what they do.

Reading Horizons’ Core Values are personal, supposedly, and intended as a reflection of who their employees are. But faith, honesty, service, and so on, are also identified on the website as the “core values that best represent our company.”. Reading Horizons is not trying to hide–anymore, I guess–that they are a Christian company (with a seemingly strong connection to the Mormon church, but that’s for another blog post, or book).

Question: Do Reading Horizons’ Core Values have anything to do with the “promise” (and sales pitch) the company made to the Minneapolis Public Schools?  Here is that promise:

All MPS studenst (sic) will demonstrate higher levels of reading skill in grades K-3. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color will narrow across all grades. MCA reading scores in grades 3-10 will increase over time, presuming implementation of the Reading Horizons program with fidelity.

The goal is to get more Minneapolis kids reading at grade level. That’s an admirable and essential goal. And, the promise is that a product will get us there. The product comes first, then the practice (“with fidelity”), then the boost in reading scores and literacy rates. 

In contrast, the MHC’s Core Values are not personal, nor product based, but rather a short list for how the group approaches reform, as part of its overall “Education Strategy.” From the MHC webpage:

The Minnesota Humanities Center practices a relationship-based approach to engagement and achievement. The Strategy is about restoring relationships: to ourselves, to our students, to each other, to our communities, and to the places we live and work. By embracing and including the Absent Narratives that make up each of us and our communities, we can close the relationship gap of human understanding and empathy between us.

The Education Strategy is experienced through four core values:

  • Build and strengthen relationships;
  • Recognize the power of story and the danger of absence;
  • Learn from and with multiple voices; and
  • Amplify community solutions for change.

Ah! In the eyes of the MHC, what ails our public education system is not an achievement gap, but rather a “relationship gap.”

Think about the “achievement gap” in Minneapolis, and then consider MHC’s fourth core value:

“…the solutions to entrenched problems are in the community”

So…MHC seems to be saying this: solutions to entrenched problems cannot be purchased, nor do they come with a fidelity-based guarantee. Solutions must be discovered within, from the “multiple voices” in the community.

On Friday, October 2, I attended St. Paul-based Parents United’s annual Leadership Summit. Two presenters led the day–Kent Pekel, of the Search Institute, which studies how relationships impact learning, and MHC staff. Both Pekel and the MHC folks, led by CEO and President David O’Fallon, knocked the cynical socks off many of us in the audience, including several Minneapolis parents and community members. 

Fresh in many of our minds was the tension currently hanging over the Minneapolis Public Schools, with one school board meeting shut down (September 29), and the next one (October 13) facing a likely challenge as well, thanks to the district’s continued defense of its relationship with–not the public it serves–but Reading Horizons, the company it has paid to fix our gaps.

No one that I know wants the Minneapolis Public Schools destroyed (I did not say no one, I said no one I know). Most people want the district to survive and thrive, for the benefit not just of their own kids, but for the city as a whole. 

So, what if, in this moment of crisis, the Minneapolis schools did not push the community away, but instead asked to partner with them on identifying our “relationship gaps”? Could this be a way forward, for a district that seems to be struggling to provide both meaningful leadership and sustainable reform?

Shandi DiCosimo

Here’s how the MHC has been operating in Omaha, according to presenters O’Fallon, Rose McGee, and Shandi DiCosimo:

Rose McGee

  • The “single story” creates stereotypes, and robs people of dignity. It also emphasizes how we are different. The “achievement gap” is one example of a single story; it can come across as hollow, and an absence.
  • Instead, let people tell their own stories–of survival and success.
  • Be mindful of this: The only thing that sustains reform is when there is a belief in it, and when communities get to make it their own. It has to come from within.
  • Create story circles, where principals, teachers, and parents can talk, listen, and share stories. People can grow and become more respectful of one another’s voices.
  • Appreciate and value what happens outside of school. Understand where students live. Go on an “Immersion” field trip to the various communities in the city, with eyes wide open. Let parents share stories and bring content into the schools.
  • Recognize the human hunger for “place.” Understand that the question, “where do I belong?,” is central to the human experience.
  • Emphasize engagement over curriculum.
  • Operate on a “developmental evaluation” model, where it is known that the unexpected will happen, and adjustments (in approach) will need to be made.
  • Think about this: new narratives, a new vision, and a new story about education can take us forward.

Photo: Minnesota Humanities Center

And, my favorite lesson the MHC staff has learned in Omaha: Give students voice and power. To illustrate this, O’Fallon shared the story of an “alternative” high school within Omaha, which had become the dumping ground for all of the kids no one knew how to deal with. When MHC came in, with their “Absent Narratives” framework, they put the students to work.

The students–who said they had never before been asked for their perspective–ended up writing a handbook for first-year teachers, to give them tips on how to reach them. The handbook became so popular that it is now shared across the Omaha district, and the students have been asked to lead staff development workshops, too.

The answers lie within the community, not without.

What will happen next, between the Minneapolis schools and those who are asking for the district to sever its relationship with Reading Horizons? 

I don’t know. But, since this whole storm broke over the city, more than one person has sent me the link to Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her 2009 talk, Adichie describes how “impressionable and vulnerable we are, in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

At Friday’s Leadership Summit, O’Fallon also shared Adichie’s Ted Talk. It’s worth watching, and, perhaps, applying to what confronts us now, in Minneapolis.

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Early Childhood Worker: Shuttled Out the Door After 20 Years

“Twenty years of experience doesn’t matter because I don’t have a two-year degree.”

That’s the feeling former Minneapolis Public Schools employee Mary Kaasa–a slight woman with a hidden, steely determination–has been sitting with since the spring of 2014, when she was laid off from her job as an Education Assistant (EA) in the district’s Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program.Mary Kaasa 2

“I was shuttled out the door with no chance to say anything. It was a slap in the face.”

Kaasa was laid off, along with 7 of her ECFE co-workers, when the district’s “Human Capital” department decided to phase out the Education Assistant position and replace it with a new job title: Associate Educator.

The only difference, according to Kaasa, is that Associate Educators, called AEs, are required to have a two-year college degree. 

Kaasa does not have one.

What she has instead is 20 years of experience, a stack of glowing references from her supervisors, and the devotion of the families she worked with.  

Example: In the spring of 2014, when Mary informed ECFE parents that her position had been eliminated, parent Anat Sinar says she and her husband were very sad. Instead of returning to the ECFE program, they decided to explore area preschool options for their daughter, saying they would have considered staying with the ECFE program if Mary would have been there.

Mary with kids

Kaasa with kids, 2011

“I have no sense of why these changes were necessary,” says Sinar, “ and I am curious as to why the position Mary had would require a college degree. Why is her experience in the program not equivalent to a two-year college degree? Why not Grandfather people like Mary in?”

Fellow ECFE parent Adam Nafziger also remembers Mary well. He took a “Daytime Dads” class at ECFE, and called Mary a “constant” in the classroom. Nafziger said he was “especially impressed with how quickly she learned the quirks and personalities of the dozen little ones she was in contact with.”

When Nafziger found out what happened to Mary, and her early childhood co workers, he said, “Not only does this fit a sad, broad pattern of destabilizing unions, but specifically, letting go of the most experienced workers (when the early childhood program relies on the experience and wisdom of those who have come before us) seems incredibly short-sighted.”

It’s not as if Kaasa wasn’t “highly qualified” for her job. Literally.

When Kaasa started working for the Minneapolis Public Schools in 1994, she did not need a college degree. Instead, a high school diploma was good enough for her job as a childcare assistant. 

Through the years, Kaasa stuck with her job, because she liked being close to the children and families who came through the ECFE program. While she never pursued a college degree, she did many training courses and achieved stacks of certificates as evidence of her continuing education, which the school district paid for.  Kaasa also says that when the No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2002, a new mandate came with it, which required all school employees to be “highly qualified.”

In lieu of a college degree, employees could take a test in order to meet the highly qualified designation; Kaasa says she passed, and her union president, Linnea Hackett (of the Education Support Professionals division of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers), confirms this. 

But, as an EA, Kaasa had job security. AEs do not.

As an EA, Kaasa says, “as long as there was a position available, we were guaranteed a job.” But AEs work instead on a yearly renewable contract, making them more like adjunct staff members than permanent employees. 

Mary’s union initially tried to fight for her job and those of her co-workers (there were more than a dozen impacted by this, I am told).

In February 2014, ESP president Hackett says she approached the Minneapolis Public Schools’ newly named Human Capital division, which operates within the broader Human Resources department, and offered two pathways for educational assistants like Mary to keep their jobs in the early childhood program. They could become special education assistants, of which the district had a shortage, or complete the coursework—on the union’s dime—to get the credentials necessary for the associate educator position.

The decision lay in the hands of DeRay McKesson, who was then a newly arrived Senior Director of Human Capital. A 2007 graduate of Bowdoin, McKesson had served a two-year post-college stint in Teach for America before rising quickly through the ranks of the education management field. McKesson declined both of the union’s offers. (He has since gone on to a prominent national position in the Black Lives Matter movement.)

The district said later, via email, that the layoffs were necessary in order to provide more flexibility in hiring practices, as the new job title is “not subject to seniority-based layoff and allows for more site influence in the hiring process.” The goal, says the district, is to hire a more diverse workforce. 

Still, the fact that Kaasa had to answer to something called the Human Capital Department rubbed her the wrong way. “It sounds like we are chattel,” says Kaasa,” as if they are saying, ‘What do you bid for this person?’” 

It’s been over a year since Kaasa was let go. She never got a chance to say goodbye. 

Now, she has been listed as “terminated” in MPS’ HR system. The district’s benefits department told her this: 

“Once it’s in the system, we can’t change it.”

But no termination letter was ever sent to her. 

Her unemployment benefits ran out. Kaasa decided to retire, so that she could start collecting her pension. She knew, after all, that she wasn’t going back to the early childhood program. All of the EA positions were gone, and she was not qualified to be an AE.

She is still fighting to get the sick pay that she says the district owes her.

“it’s a couple thousand dollars, and I earned that. If I had known they weren’t going to pay it, I would have taken those sick days, instead of coming in when I didn’t feel well, like a diligent worker.”

All of this prompted Kaasa to speak out at an October 2014 school board meeting, where she addressed the board and then Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson:

“You may not know how it feels to be so easily dismissed,” Kaasa told the board. “But I can tell you that I feel sad and frustrated and angry and unheard. I still don’t understand why, after twenty years of dedication to children and their families, I am pushed aside.”

In March, 2015, the union filed a grievance on Kaasa’s behalf. It was denied by the district. A resolution will not be cheap:

MFT says the district always disputes a grievance. It may take a few more months before it goes to arbitration, though, and I am ‘the case’ that will determine if I will get my benefits and then see if it applies to any others that have lost theirs over the past few years.

The attorney fees will cost them (MPS) more than just paying me my sick time. Kaasa in Coffee Shop

“I felt strongly about my job and didn’t want it to end,” says Kaasa.

Especially not like this.

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