Tag Archives: Minnesota Comeback

Right-Wing Neo-School Voucher Bill Hits Minnesota

January 29, 2017

Among the polished marble and gold-tinged walls of the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda, a stand-off of sorts took place on January 24. On the outskirts of the rotunda, a circle of protesters–parents, teachers, union reps and activists–stood silently, clutching hand-written, pro-public school and anti-voucher signs. 

Before them, a crowd of school choice advocates began filling the inner circle of the rotunda, all wearing festive, buttercup-yellow scarves around their necks. The scarves came from a local group called OAK, or “Opportunities for All Kids,” but they were also a reminder that, hey–it’s National School Choice Week!

To show solidarity with other school choice devotees, the gold scarves were donned nationwide at charter school and state capitol rallies. Even Betsy DeVos was found sporting one at a Washington, D.C., charter school event. (I’m glad she’s found something to do while waiting to be–most likely–voted in as Trump’s education secretary on January 31.) 

In St. Paul, the OAK folks were also on hand to support the latest attempt to keep Minnesota taxpayer dollars in private hands, when it comes to education funding. Through a bill introduced by Republican Ron Kresha of northern Minnesota, lawmakers will be asked to provide a tax credit for individuals and corporations who make “equity and diversity donations” to private and religious school foundations.  

Such donations are then supposed to be used as scholarships for kids withering away at miserable and/or secular public schools, but don’t call them vouchers (at least not yet). A school voucher, strictly speaking, draws money directly out of public education coffers, and directs it to private schools, including religious schools, in the form of reimbursement. A tax credit, or “neo-voucher,” on the other hand, allows taxpayers (corporate or individual) to avoid paying into the public education coffers in the first place.

These “neo-vouchers” have been spreading across the country more quickly than traditional vouchers. The tax credit model provides a way to funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools with even less public accountability than with regular vouchers, and to bypass state constitutional provisions that have stood in the way of some state’s traditional voucher programs.

–Brendan Fischer, Center on Media and Democracy

Neo-vouchers are the latest school privatization scheme cooked up by the determined forces at ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the place where “global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called ‘model bills’ reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.”  (Read Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, for more info, or scroll through these short videos on ALEC’s agenda.)

ALEC has been pushing school voucher bills since the early 1980’s, under the tutelage of pro-privatization ALEC guru, Milton Friedman. Back then, ALEC tried the honest approach, by openly stating that its original voucher bill was intended to smash teachers’ unions and “introduce normal market forces” into public education.

But they have learned that vouchers are unpopular and, in many states, simply not allowed–thanks to the burdensome separation of church and state. Now, according to the Center on Media and Democracy, “ALEC and other school privatizers today frame ‘vouchers’—taxpayer-funded tuition for private, and often religious, schools—in terms of ‘opportunity’ for low-income students and giving parents the ‘choice’ to send their children to public or private schools.”

A recent Truthout article calls this narrative a “useful fiction” built around the idea that vouchers are “social mobility tickets”–and not a scheme to further segregate, de-fund and destroy public education. And it is working:

The American Federation for Children (AFC), chaired by Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos, estimates that vouchers and voucher-like tax-credit schemes currently divert $1.5 billion of public money to private schools annually. But that is not enough. By expanding “pro-school choice legislative majorities” in state houses across the country the organization hopes that $5 billion a year will be siphoned out of public schools by 2020 and applied to for-profit and religious schools.

Minnesota’s Voucher, er, Tax Credit Bill

This kind of “voucher by another name” is what we have with the bill now moving through the Minnesota legislature. ALEC has named its model bill the “Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act (Scholarship Tax Credits),” and Minnesota legislators have brought it, once again, to the Senate and House for consideration. In the mold of ALEC, they are calling it the “Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” The basic premise of it is that individuals and corporations can direct their tax dollars to private school foundations, rather than pay into the state’s general education fund.

These donations, as noted above, would be used to provide tuition scholarships for individual students. And, the qualifying income level for these scholarships is quite high: a family of five making $105,000 per year, or twice the limit allowed by federal reduced lunch guidelines, would be eligible. (This points back to the idea that vouchers are more about breaking the public school system than helping low-income kids attend spendy private schools.) The state’s general education fund stands to lose up to $35 million if this neo-voucher bill passes.

In 2015 Republicans tried to push a similar bill through, with help from Democrat Terri Bonoff, a determined Teach for America and education reform supporter who ran for Congress in 2016 and lost. (The Minnesota push for vouchers goes back, at least, to the 1990’s.) The bill didn’t make it, but it’s back–and this year, Republicans control both the House and Senate in Minnesota. 

An important note:

But…School Choice!

Back to the gold-scarved, school choice rally sponsored by OAK, or “Opportunities for All Kids.” OAK is a relatively new organization run by long-time Republican operative, Chas Anderson, who was closely aligned with former Governor Tim Pawlenty and once held a top spot in Minnesota’s Department of Education.

I can’t tell where OAK gets its funding from, as they do not appear to be a registered nonprofit. In 2015, Anderson joined forces with two other “high-ranking alums of the Minnesota GOP”–Kurt Zellers and Brian McClung–to start a PR firm, MZA+Co. The return email address for OAK is Anderson’s MZA+Co email address: chas@mzacompany.com, so it is unclear whether OAK is a separate group or a project of her PR firm. 

In April, 2016, former Pawlenty spokesman McClung appeared on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac program to weigh in on Republican plans to fix the “achievement gap.” Ripping a page from ALEC’s playbook, McClung emphatically gave Almanac host Cathy Wurzer an earful: “For too long,” he insists, “Democrats and the teachers’ union have stopped kids from having real choices…and so we need to find ways to empower parents.”

He doesn’t mention that, as the state’s population has grown steadily less white and less wealthy, public funding for education has dropped. This is, of course, a Friedman-esque way to create a crisis for our public schools, thereby “proving” they are failing–and insisting that neo-voucher, school choice schemes are the only way to fix them. 

Choice Before Quality

At the OAK rally on January 24, as silent protesters stood witness, a small and equally quiet group stood before a podium. There, Arizona charter school advocate and sought after education reform expert Lisa Graham Keegan took the stage wearing a crisp red suit and waxing on about how she and her husband are “blessed to have a home in northern Minnesota.” 

Image result for lisa graham keegan

Lisa Graham Keegan, at a previous school choice rally. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Graham Keegan glowingly stated that she is “passionate, passionate” about school choice, but confessed to being “agnostic” when it comes to where kids go to school. “We love having choices,” she told the group in front of her,” because our five children are very different.” Graham Keegan helped write charter school legislation in Arizona, where, she has admitted, quality control lagged far behind the desire to make school choice a reality. (Arizona already has a state law that gives individual and corporations tax credit for directing their monies to private school foundations.)

Local school choice supporter Reynolds-Anthony Harris followed Graham Keegan onstage, saying that “our job is to harvest the best out of our children.” Harris is a small business owner whose company, Lyceum Partners+Design, was listed as a supporter of a series of school board candidate events in Minneapolis in the fall of 2016.  At one of these events, Harris moderated a particularly contentious candidate forum on behalf of  “Animate the Race,” a side project of Minnesota Comeback (another “sector agnostic” group with wealthy funders). 

After Graham Keegan and Harris were finished, OAK supporters headed off to a luncheon, to be followed by attendance at the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act hearing in the House Education Finance Committee. 

The line of resistance, so far, to this ALEC-crafted tax credit bill has been drawn by Education Minnesota, NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change), and the faith-based group, ISAIAH. Before the school choice rally, these groups held their own media event in the basement of the state capitol. Hoisting signs that called vouchers a “false promise,” supporters called for more resources for existing public schools–more nurses, more mental health support, and more investment in training and retaining teachers of color.

Tax credits are just another name for vouchers, they insisted, before calling out the “two-tiered systems”–one for wealthier, white students, and one for marginalized students of color–that vouchers and other school choice schemes have created in cities such as MIlwaukee, Washington D.C., Cleveland, and, of course, DeVos’s Detroit.

Paul Slack, president of ISAIAH and head pastor at north Minneapolis’s New Creations Church, ended the anti-voucher rally by saying that “public education is still our best opportunity–not perfect–but the best opportunity for all of us.”

“Collectively,” Slack said, “we have one question for our legislators. Are you listening?”

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!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

Minneapolis’s Previous School Board Can’t Vote on Proposed Policy Manual

January 10, 2017

Tonight, the new Minneapolis school board members will be seated. Just before that meeting, last year’s board will hold a ceremonial event to welcome the new members and conduct the oath of office.

What will not happen is a previously expected vote by the departing board on two key issues: 1) the revised policy manual largely orchestrated by outgoing member Josh Reimnitz, and 2) the make-up of the district’s Workforce 2020 advisory committee. In a December post, I spelled out the concerns with the revised policy manual, which is based on a somewhat obscure model called Carver Policy Governance

After months of work in 2016, it seemed as though the board’s policy committee, led by Reimnitz, would be able to get the policy manual passed at the December board meeting, despite concerns that the proposed revisions (intended to guide the school board’s work) had yet to be thoroughly vetted by the public. Adding to this concern was the seemingly sudden realization that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment had been completed for the new policy manual, although such an assessment is a district requirement for any new, notable “future policies, practices, programs and procedures.”

This realization–that no such assessment had been done–killed chances for a December vote. Rumors then circulated that the 2016 school board would get one more chance to push a vote through on the revised manual. That’s because the first meeting of the new year includes a nod to the outgoing members, as noted above, and a suspected (planned upon, really) opportunity for the exiting board members to squeak in a couple of votes before the new board is officially seated.

Not true. Statute dictates that the departing board members’ voting rights were valid until December 31, 2016, and not a day after. Reimnitz (along with the other two outgoing members, Tracine Asberry and Carla Bates) will therefore not be able to weigh in on whether or not the board should adopt the trimmed down policy manual he helped craft. (Many close observers say the manual is simply not ready for prime time, either. and in need of further hashing out.)

The policy manual vote is nowhere to be found on tonight’s agenda. Neither is any further discussion of who should be on the district’s Workforce 2020 committee. This committee is a state-mandated advisory group, and it must include community members who will attend monthly meetings and advise the school board on “rigorous academic standards and student achievement goals and measures.” All board members were allowed to suggest two names for this committee; those names were then slated for approval at December’s board meeting.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the board came to an awkward pause that night, when it appeared not all board members were prepared to sign off on the Workforce committee–as the suggested names had not been previously given to the board for review. Should the board vote in one fell swoop on something they hadn’t seen until just then? Questions like this caused citywide representative, Rebecca Gagnon, to stop the process. Three hours and ten minutes into the four-hour long meeting, Gagnon told board chair Jenny Arneson that she “didn’t know we were voting on this tonight.” 

“We’re not, unless we approve it,” Arneson quickly replied. But, unless Gagnon had spoken up, it seems clear that the vote on the committee’s make-up would have sailed forward, with no public discussion on the proposed names on the list. Does it matter? Maybe not. But at least two names on the list–Al Fan and Kyrra Rankine–stand out as worthy of further scrutiny.

To be eligible to serve on the district’s Workforce committee, participants are supposed to be “teachers, parents, staff, students, and other community residents invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” But Kyrra Rankine has been a longstanding Teach for America–Twin Cities employee, and Al Fan is the executive director of Minnesota Comeback, a moneyed education reform group with a declared goal of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” (?) in Minneapolis, by 2025–in “sector neutral” settings. 

Sector neutral means any school setting–charter, private, public–is fine, so long as it “beats the odds” for kids in poverty. This may be one (arguably unsuccessful) way to fund education, but it is certainly not the same thing as being “invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” The public doesn’t “own” Minnesota Comeback the way it owns a public school district. There are no meetings posted on the Minnesota Comeback website, and no elected officials sit on its policy and “talent” committees. Minnesota Comeback is wielding influence with minimal public oversight. There are no four-hour long videos of any Minnesota Comeback gatherings to pour over and report on. 

Democracy!

The Minneapolis Public Schools might be a bureaucratic mess in the eyes of many, but it also must answer to the public through open meetings, a democratically elected school board and public data requests. Minnesota Comeback must, presumably, only answer to its funders, such as the Minneapolis Foundation, which described the group this way in a December, 2015 newsletter:

  • Minnesota Comeback (formerly the Education Transformation Initiative) will develop a portfolio of strategic initiatives and school investments to ensure that all Minneapolis students attend high-quality schools by 2025.

Minnesota Comeback and Teach for America are frequent darlings of the local philanthropic community, as evidenced by the Minneapolis Foundation’s 2017 grant cycle. Should their representatives have a seat on a Minneapolis Public Schools Workforce 2020 committee?

Perhaps, but it seems that is a conversation the school board should have in public. And, with the rush to vote stopped, it looks like that’s what citizens just might get in 2017–for the proposed policy revision and for the Workforce 2020 committee.

Also up tonight: a shuffling of school board officers. Jenny Arneson will no longer be board chair. Instead, Don Samuels, Nelson Inz and Rebecca Gagnon are vying to fill her spot. Vice Chair is expected to go to Kim Ellison, while Arneson has put her name in for Treasurer. New board members Bob Walser and Ira Jourdain are said to be interested in taking over Reimnitz’s seat as Clerk, who oversees the board’s policy committee. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. at Davis Center headquarters and is broadcast live online here.

Consider making a new year donation to Bright Light Small City to keep this work going for 2017. My work is entirely funded by my kind and generous readers! Thank you so much to those who have already donated.

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

Taking Reformers Out of Context: 2016 Highlights

January 1, 2017

It’s New Year’s Day, and for now, my house is quiet. Before me sits tons of work to be done–an unlit Christmas tree ready to be turned into a winter bird feeder, stacks of shared skates in need of sorting, and, of course, the pile of dishes that so quickly crowd my tiny kitchen counter.

I want to write instead. 

Leo

On December 19, my 103-year old grandfather, Leo, died. He was a writer, up until the last months of his life. We were not close while I was growing up, but he did tell me once that, to be a writer, one has to “apply seat of pants to chair, and write.” Thinking about writing, talking about writing, imagining the perfect, clutter-free life that would lead to volumes of unforgettable work–none of this counts as much as just sitting down and writing.

In  2017, I hope to do more of that. I am working on a book, which has taken me somewhat out of the social media eye and required me to work the old-fashioned way: slowly, with lots of handwritten notes. Before I move further down that path, I want to reflect on some 2016 blog highlights.

In 2016, this little blog started the year on fire by tracking Minneapolis’s superintendent search. On January 4, I published a piece on then-candidate Sergio Paez, who was fighting to save his job, and his name:

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.

This led to a rush of early 2016 pieces about Michael Goar (once the favored candidate for school superintendent), the District Management Council (high-priced reform consultants from Boston) and a series of posts on how Minneapolis become a breeding ground for neoliberal education reform.

This is how it started, on January 25, 2016:

Minneapolis, we need to talk about McKinsey & Co., the Itasca Project and their influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Four more posts detailing global business consultant McKinsey & Company’s involvement in Minneapolis followed, paving the way for a look at Minnesota Comeback–the latest philanthropic effort to redesign the Minneapolis schools.

This writing hasn’t made me popular among the reformer crowd. At a late 2016 reform-funded school board campaign event, a main funder of Minnesota Comeback grew huffy in my presence. I was standing near him as a friend asked questions about the group’s plans for the Minneapolis Public Schools. “Ladies,” he said shortly, “this isn’t an interview.” (He is the same funder who, at a previous Minnesota Comeback event, cheerfully reduced a friend and I to mom status.)

He realized we weren’t there to thank Minnesota Comeback for the lush buffet they had put on for the candidate forum. “Some people take things out of context,” he said, tapping me on the shoulder before walking off. 

Do I? I can see why Minnesota Comeback members might think this way, as they typically enjoy very flattering press coverage that is conspicuously devoid of context.

Consider this MinnPost piece from December, 2016: “How one education nonprofit is seeking to create a groundswell of parent engagement.” In the piece, MinnPost education reporter Erin Hinrichs creates a glowing picture of Minnesota Comeback’s efforts, and their self-financed ability to spin out grants to organizations and schools they like.

Grant distribution is a questionable way to create a better school system, but that doesn’t come up in Hinrichs’ piece. Instead, Minnesota Comeback is treated to an unblinking look at its recent work, which includes:

  • Hiring a community engagement director who is publicly very pro-charter school
  • Dousing an already well-funded entity, Students for Education Reform, with cash (the nationally run group started, in 2011, with $30,000. One year later, they reported almost $2 million in revenue. If you want to know who they are and what they stand for, research SFER’s board members).
  • Closing the “information gap” by hosting “conversations” with parents through New Publica, a media group run by former Minneapolis school board member, Alberto Monserrate. New Publica lists MinnPost as one of their clients, along with a handful of other education reform outlets, as well as non-education, business entities. If MinnPost has paid New Publica for PR work, and MinnPost then writes a positive take on New Publica’s other work, does this count as journalism?

A friend of mine recently told me that pro-privatization groups will always tell you what they are doing,  if you know what to look for. That is true with Minnesota Comeback as well (look! they hired a new talent director with a background in “recovery” school districts), but it should be the job of reporters to connect the dots for citizens, and pierce through the group’s own PR platitudes.

That’s what this blog is intended to do, but the workload is heavy. There appears to be no mainstream or even alternative press (besides this little site) in Minnesota doing investigative work into education reform groups and their cozy ties to Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens.

Consider making a new year donation to Bright Light Small City to keep this work going for 2017. My work is entirely funded by my kind and generous readers! 

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

In loving memory of Leo Sonderegger, 1913-2106. Peace activist, ACLU defender, conscientious objector to war and 2013 Elders Wisdom, Children’s Song honoree.

“The world changes so fast/write it down.”

 

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Bobby Chandler, teacher and researcher. 2007

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!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

 

Shocker! Minneapolis School Board Forum Group Buys Media Coverage

October 25, 2016

Not many people showed up to an October 13 Minneapolis school board forum, according to an article in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a venerated newspaper based in Minneapolis.

The MSR has been around for eighty-two years, making it the “oldest Black-owned business in Minnesota,” and an essential source for the kind of community news and insight that is hard to find elsewhere. I am guessing, but do not know for sure, that the Spokesman-Recorder runs a lean ship, financially speaking. They have just one staff writer, Charles Hallman, listed online.

It’s tough to survive in the news business these days (unless you are TMZ, or on a 24/7 Trump watch, I suppose). Just ask the staff at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who have struck up a #NewsMatters campaign–complete with t-shirts–designed to let everybody know that, in their words, “Minnesota’s oldest newspaper is being eviscerated.” On a carnival-like ride, the Pioneer Press, which has been around for 170 years, has been sold and resold, rebranded, repackaged, slapped up, and trimmed down–and its fate now lies in the hands of something called the Alden Global Capital Group. 

Dave Orick, a Pioneer Press reporter and an officer with the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, had this to say in an October 25 press release:

More people are seeing our coverage now than ever before because of the reach of our digital products. The Twin Cities ranks No. 1 among the top 20 markets for newspaper readers and 70 percent of east metro newspaper readers choose the Pioneer Press.

Although the paper remains profitable, Alden Global Capital has continued to cut staff to line the pockets of its investors. The loss of so many reporters, photographers, copy editors, circulation, accounting and maintenance employees has impacted the communities we serve.

It has meant cutting back on local coverage of education, sports, the arts and a large amount of the investigative journalism that holds our public institutions accountable. We publish fewer local photos that visually tell the stories of St. Paul and the east metro. We’ve lost a measure of quality control and institutional knowledge as our copy desk has been decimated.

Orick’s press release includes an unusual request: “We’re asking civic-minded community leaders to step forward and help the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, the union representing Pioneer Press employees, find a local owner that values the important role this newspaper plays in the Twin Cities.”

Help the Pioneer Press find an owner who cares about news, investigative reporting and local storytelling. 

And then, look closely at the Minneapolis school board forum article published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. The forum was sponsored by the Animate the Race campaign, a special election season project of local, very well-financed education reform interests, such as Minnesota Comeback.

In the article about the forum, written by Spokesman-Recorder staff writer Hallman, Animate the Race organizers and funders–Daniel Sellers and Bill Graves, respectively–are quoted in positive terms. Graves also puts in a plug for the group’s next forum, on November 3, saying he appreciates “how much everyone is excited about taking time…to build understanding and awareness.”

Then, at the very bottom of the article, is this important note:

This story was sponsored by Animate the Race.

Uh, wait a minute. Animate the Race not only convened the forum and paid for “fellows” to help lead it, but also bought press coverage for it? And that press coverage includes genteel quotes from Animate the Race staff, with no deeper look at who they are? Sellers, for example, had a heavy hand in the money-drenched 2014 Minneapolis school board race, and Graves is a clear supporter of charter schools and education reform interests. His foundation has even given money to the employer of current school board candidate, Josh Reimnitz. While Animate the Race claims neutrality and a simple, informative stance, you really “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

This doesn’t sound right. Last week, I emailed Hallman to ask him about this, but I haven’t received a response yet. Maybe there is a good explanation for this PR dressed as journalism that isn’t immediately obvious to the casual reader’s eye.

Or maybe not. Maybe–no surprise–our news outlets are for sale, in this time of increased pressure to stay afloat. Reader, and voter, beware. 

Post Script: Charles Hallman, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder reporte, has said he was not responsible for the note about Animate the Race sponsoring his article, and that it was put there by the paper’s editors. Also, Mr. Hallman reports not receiving my original email inquiry, sent on October 20, in regards to this matter. He has forwarded my inquiry on to his editors. If I learn more, I will further update this post.

I can say with certainty that no secret group is paying for these blog posts! My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated! 

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

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!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)

Minneapolis Superintendent Search: A Direction Home?

May 24, 2016

There is one central question hanging over today’s expected announcement of Minneapolis’s next superintendent:

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the reformiest of all?

Is it former Minneapolis administrator, Brenda Cassellius, who helped guide the district through its romance with McKinsey & Company consultants, back in the mid-2000’s? Cassellius is also cut from the same professional cloth–sewn by former superintendent Carol Johnson–as recent MPS administrators, Bernadeia Johnson and Michael Goar. 

This fact alone has scared off some potential supporters, who worry that Cassellius, as superintendent, will push Minneapolis further down the flash in the pan path of the market-based reform movement, where no shiny stone–or successful MPS department–has been left unturned. (Read my series on McKinsey’s influence on the Minneapolis schools for more info about this, starting here.)

Oddly, rumors are surfacing that the local reform glitterati (read the McKinsey series for names) are lining up behind Cassellius’s soft-spoken competitor, Anchorage superintendent, Ed Graff. Graff, if selected, is poised to either be a miraculous uniter, unknowingly aligning divided camps, or–some might hope–a blob of putty in the hands of Minnesota Comeback-like forces, who want to take apart and rebuild the Minneapolis schools in their own, highly proficient image. 

Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan

There can be no denying that Graff interviewed well. He was calm, cool, personable and actually had something of a vision for education. His focus has been on social-emotional learning, which sounds as refreshing as a warm day in Alaska. He smartly would not nod along to board member’s questions about student-based funding and autonomous schools, and instead offered grounded answers that implied he is not likely to be any plutocrat’s puppet. 

Cassellius has earned her marks, too. There must be a reason certain reformers–the kind who would like to convince us that alternative licensure is the burning issue of the day–do not want her in as head of the Minneapolis schools. Is she too savvy? Too familiar with their soulless data maps? Maybe she is the Carol Johnson protegé Minneapolis has been waiting for–the one who, like Graff, is not likely to fall for reform-minded shenanigans imposed on the district by outside political influences and agendas, propped up by hedge fund excesses.

Now that I think about it, either one of these candidates sounds pretty good. And it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, too. 

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

–Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” 1965

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!

Donate Securely with PayPal

Enter amount (USD)