Tag Archives: segregation

Minneapolis’s Segregated Charter Schools Score a Windfall

October 9, 2017

On September 28, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it would give a handful of states, including Minnesota, an “additional $253 million in grants to expand charter schools,” in order to spur on school choice–an education reform strategy long embraced by Democrats, Republicans and wealthy financiers. 

Windfall!

In the announcement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos referenced Minnesota, where the nation’s first charter school was authorized in 1991. With this new influx of federal money, Minnesota’s burgeoning school choice market will receive a $23 million dollar shot in the arm. The bulk of this taxpayer-generated cash will go to the Minnesota Department of Education, while another $1 million will go directly to Minneapolis’s Hiawatha Academies charter school chain.

Such announcements are often accompanied by cheerful talk of innovation and choice. The new federal funding is all about “seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them,” according to DeVos. But this new funding will also support Minnesota’s increasingly segregated public and charter school landscape, as well as an exodus of money and students from union-staffed districts. (Charter school teachers and staff are mostly non-unionized, in Minnesota and beyond.)

Segregated Schools Get a Boost 

Hiawatha Academies is a perfect example of this. The charter school chain serves a population of students that is almost exclusively Latino. Public education records show, for example, that ninety-three percent of HIawatha Academies’ Morris Park students are Latino. The neighborhood it sits in, however, is seventy-seven percent white

Overall, Hiawatha Academies’ test scoresprized by reformers as the measure of school success–have dropped significantly in recent years. 

Hiawatha Academies has several other schools in the southern half of Minneapolis and is slated to open a big, brand-new high school in 2018. This school, Hiawatha Collegiate High School, currently serves 105 students in a former Minneapolis public school site. Eighty-three percent of the students are Latino; again, this is an aberration when the neighborhood’s demographics are considered. Recently, Minneapolis’s Planning Commission approved Hiawatha’s plans to expand the high school, with a target enrollment of over 700 students.

This is less about innovation and more about grabbing market share from the Minneapolis Public Schools. Hiawatha Academiesexpansion  plan makes this clear: “Our goal is that by 2024, more than 2,000 scholars – 5 percent of all Minneapolis school children – will attend a Hiawatha Academies school.” The path to expansion has been paved through unnaturally segregated schools and loads of outside money–including extensive financial support from the WalMart fueled Walton Family Foundation–and now, an injection of $1 million from the federal Department of Education.

Juicy Incentive Packages Lure Funders

Hiawatha Academies’ new high school will also be funded by private investors (including several corporations) who will benefit from a New Market Tax Credit. This tax credit, started in the Clinton administration and intended to boost development in “underserved” areas, has provided a “gravy train to fat city” for charter school investors, as Forbes magazine writer Addison Wiggin put it in a 2013 article. Wiggin describes the charter school market as “booming,” thanks to investments from “bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors” eager to cash in on the New Market Tax Credit.

In 2010, this tax credit was explored in-depth by journalist Juan Gonzalez. Writing for the New York Daily News, Gonzalez found that investing in new charter schools has become incredibly lucrative. Not only do investors stand to gain a tax credit worth up to 39 percent after seven years, thanks to the New Market program, but they can also earn interest on the money they’ve invested, since it is done in the form of a loan. Gonzalez noted that the New Market Tax Credit can also be tacked onto other “federal tax credits, like historic preservation or job creation….” Hiawatha’s new Collegiate High School will be located in a historic former bottling plant in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood.

All told, this adds up to a very juicy incentive package when it comes to the proliferation of charter schools in urban areas. Investors in HIawatha Academies’ new high school have put up $5 million in funding through the New Market Tax Credit program. In order to rake in enough per pupil funds to make this project sustainable over time, the school will need to rapidly grow its enrollment to the projected capacity of nearly 800 students. 

Push for Privatization

The corporate and government-sponsored expansion of charter schools is less about student success and more about pushing privatized, market forces onto public institutions. A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article documented the drain charter schools are imposing on the city’s increasingly cash-strapped and underfunded public school district. In “Students in Flight,” reporters Beena Raghavendran and MaryJo Webster sized up the situation this way: “Minneapolis Public Schools is the biggest loser in Minnesota’s robust school-choice environment, surrendering more kids to charter schools and other public school options than any other district.”

Pitting privately managed, publicly (and privately) funded charter schools against public school districts creates a market of winners and losers–especially when the charter schools are allowed to serve niche populations. There is further evidence of this on the state education department’s website. There, readers will find a list of charter schools deemed “high quality  and worthy of replication. Included on this list are highly segregated schools like Twin Cities International Elementary School.

Publicly available data shows that this “international” school, located in Minneapolis, has a student population that is 100 percent Black/African-American (18 percent of Minneapolis’s overall population is identified as Black, according to recent census data). From the school’s website, it seems clear that it serves Minneapolis’s large Somali community, with only two percent of its students requiring special education services. That is far less than the special education rate of 15 percent within the Minneapolis Public Schools. (Special education remains an expensive, underfunded proposition for districts, like Minneapolis, that serve a bigger percentage of students with higher needs.)

School Choice Leads to Resegregation

Instead of remedying the historic and ongoing problem of racially and economically isolated neighborhoods and public schools, federal and local support for charter schools is exacerbating the situation. Research–like that of New York Times education reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells us that segregated schools often remain separate and unequal for students of color. In the Twin Cities, an increase in segregated schools has also meant white students are being educated in public and charter schools with abnormally high percentages of white, wealthier students. Nevertheless, several of these schools–including Twin Cities German Immersion and Nova Classical Academy–are lauded on the state department of education’s website for being “high quality” charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are struggling to keep up–especially in a time when public funding for education has dwindled significantly in Minnesota. Some might call this disaster capitalism, with public entities being weakened over time, in order to create an opportunity to reconstruct the education landscape in favor of privatized, niche (segregated) charter schools that sometimes attract wealthy investors, but often fail to provide a better education for marginalized students.

In an op-ed response to the Star Tribune’s portrayal of Minneapolis as the “biggest loser” in the school choice market, University of Minnesota education professor Nicola Alexander offered a cautionary message. While expressing sympathy for parents and students who don’t want to be left “feeling stuck in schools that do not serve their needs,” Alexander pokes a hole in the idea that school choice schemes are somehow without consequence.

The proliferation of charter schools in urban areas provides an end run around “broader social factors, like poverty, that ailed many of these communities,” Alexander writes. Further, instead of tackling the whole, state and federal policy has fallen “firmly on the side of mechanisms that equated choice with empowerment and school systems with markets.” But, of course, she notes, “markets are not always fair.”

This is not a concept that has bothered Betsy DeVos, either in her home state of Michigan, where she pushed for accountability-free charter schools, or in her new role as federal education secretary. One of the Trump administration’s first action items for the Department of Education, under DeVos, was to cancel an Obama-era program designed to promote school integration. With this latest announcement of more funding for charter schools, states like Minnesota are being pushed further into a market-based, partially privatized education system.

A condensed version of this post was originally published on the Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have!

Donate

 

It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

With Betsy DeVos in the background, whitewashing segregation and the Jim Crow era, the annual standardized testing season is here, ready to do its part to keep our schools separate and unequal. 

How’s that? Consider two local lessons in how the testing regime is propped up in our public schools on some pretty shaky ethics.

First, parents in the Becker, Minnesota school district recently received a jaw-dropping letter in their kids’ backpacks. The letter announced that the district would shortly be “adjusting (its) academic schedule,” by dropping–temporarily!–science and social studies classes in favor of an extra “Power Hour” of math and reading for each kid.

“Grade level teachers will work during this time to teach skills in the area of reading and math at your child’s instructional level,” the letter states, before assuring parents that district staff are “committed to working together to best meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Hmm. What theory of education or child development would suggest that the best needs of all kids would involve doubling down on math and reading test prep, to gin up scores on outsourced standardized tests made by for-profit corporations?

Here is the letter that was sent home:

Becker is a majority white, middle class, exurban district. Research shows that students in districts such as this often rake in the highest scores on standardized tests, and state education data for Becker backs this up. In 2015-2016, the Becker schools “surpassed the state average in every grade level for every test,” crowed a statement on the district’s website. What’s more, “most grade levels improved the number of students proficient in comparison to last year.” (That means they achieved “growth,” but don’t ask DeVos to explain any of this.)

But at what price? Replacing science and social studies with a super, extra fun Power Hour of reading and math does not seem like an ethical way to ensure dominance on top of the standardized test heap.

Parents in the Becker schools didn’t like it, either. A source tells me that as soon as the Power Hour letter hit home, parents loudly informed the district that they did not approve of their kids being given concentrated doses of test prep. In response, the district reinstated science and social studies (even though data showed there “would be a benefit to incorporating a ‘Power Hour’ of intensive instruction to our day”), and sent the following chagrined letter home:

 

I don’t know the opt out rates in Becker–the data does not appear to be easily available–but in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, a growing number of students are choosing not to take the annual MCA tests. This has been building for years, especially for high school students who are–surprisingly!–savvy enough to realize that the MCA tests are of little consequence to their lives and their futures. MCA test scores are not required for graduation, nor are they part of college admission decisions. In other words, they don’t really matter.

And that’s partly because everything else matters so much. In 2015, I interviewed a handful of students from Southwest High School about their decision to blow off the MCAs, and their answers were very revealing:

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

Here’s the ethics connection. In a February message sent to teachers at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, the school’s testing coordinator informed them that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) had recently added “encouraging parents or students to refuse the test” to its list of “unethical” test administration practices. This is the email sent to Southwest teachers:

Hello All,

The MCA testing window opens March 6th (overlapping with ACCESS, ACT & Make-up ACT administration) through May 5th.

Additional information will be provided in the next week or so with specifics on student testing dates, locations, proctor assignments, and other ways we can support each other in this effort.

To whet your appetite for that additional information, below are a few points regarding Parent Refusal Forms picked up from yesterday’s training session at The District.

  • MDE has added encouraging Opt Outs to the list of unethical practices in test administration.
  • Schools are expected to have a 95% participation rate to qualify for MMR funds.
  • To underscore the point, REA sent me the following message (highlights, theirs): 

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

The testing coordinator acknowledges that this message is being sent to Southwest teachers because “in the past SW has had a lot of opt outs.” And that must be stopped by threatening to withhold funds, apparently.

It is clear that we have built a whole industry around testing, as our schools have become more racially and economically segregated–partly because test scores are made public, allowing parents to “opt out” of schools with low test scores. And who is most likely to attend a school with low test scores? In Minnesota, like most other places, it is marginalized students of color living in underserved communities.

The more we double down on trying to force students and teachers to comply with standardized testing, the more, it seems, we avoid difficult conversations about ethical concerns around segregation and the unequal (current and historic) allocation of resources, not to mention the fallacy of reducing educational achievement to multiple choice tests. 

Ceresta Smith is a Florida-based teacher and leader in the Opt Out movement (we met a few years ago at an education justice conference). On Monday morning, after Moonlight was awkwardly awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, this is what she wrote on Facebook:

Big ups to Moonlight!!!🤗These folks came through arts magnet programs in majority Black community schools with majority Black faculties composed of great teachers! Big up to the arts!!! Down with culturally biased worthless testing! Those tests do not make award winning art and artists!!! The teachers and students just put Miami in the big league for talent for writing, acting, and sharing truth about growing up poor and gay! Wow, big task for schools, Miami Northwestern High and Norland Middle, which a fraudulent grading system likes to label as less than.

In our questionably ethical pursuit of test scores, silence, secrecy and compliance, are we missing key conversations about what students, parents, teachers actually want from 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!

[Exq_ppd_form]

School Choice? Less Reagan, More Humphrey, Please

January 28, 2016

What passes for acceptable school choice rhetoric, behind closed doors, is frightening.

school choice panel 1

All white panel, under a photo of an integrated classroom

On Tuesday, January 26, I attended a National School Choice Week forum at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I went expecting a pro-school choice event, obviously, but, since the Humphrey School is one of the nation’s premier public policy graduate schools, I also expected a reasonable look at the choice movement in education.

What I found instead was appalling. The Humphrey School’s event was billed as “bipartisan,” but I quickly realized how thoroughly that word has become cover for groupthink. If both Democrats and Republicans support the dismantling of our public institutions, then shouldn’t you, too?

Let me explain. The Humphrey School event was moderated by former MinnPost education writer, Beth Hawkins. Hawkins was joined onstage–for an “informative discussion”–by former Democratic state senator and charter school pioneer Ember Reichgott Junge, current Republican state legislator and education finance committee chair, Jennifer Loon, and Richard Komer, of the Virginia-based right-wing group, the Institute for Justice.

One Democrat+one right-leaning Republican+one far-right lawyer (Komer) does not add up to a “bipartisan” panel, in my opinion.  Humphrey School event

The panel ended up being all white, too, when invited African-American guest, George Parker, who works for the education reform group, Students First, was not able to make it. But that’s not all. The whole room was white, as far as I could see. 

The audience gathered was formally dressed and appeared representative of the kind of people who have the freedom to attend mid-morning forums. It also seemed to include many state legislators. David Hann, a Republican from suburban Eden Prairie, was acknowledged, as were others.

The morning’s panel began with a quick dismissal of the desegregation lawsuit filed in Minnesota last fall, which, if successful, could require the state’s charter schools to develop and implement integration plans. All of the panelists, and moderator Hawkins, seemed to agree that the resegregation happening across the country now is simply due to “parental choice.” Reichgott Junge–the Democrat–declared herself “not neutral” on this topic, and told the audience not to worry because “this is not the civil rights era.” What she meant, I guess, was that we solved all of that bad racism stuff back in the ’60’s. Case closed. 

Can I mention how very odd all of this was? We were sitting in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Humphrey! He was one of Minnesota’s leading advocates–and most eloquent agitators–for civil rights, back when such views posed a direct threat to the Democratic party, which had grown quite comfortable with the racist “states’ rights” rhetoric of its Southern Segregationist members.

Is our current “bipartisan” political world growing quite comfortable with racist “school choice” rhetoric? Is any attempt to regulate charter schools a “frontal attack on choice,” as Hawkins said? Really? Is there no room on the school choice bandwagon for critical thinking?

Wilkins 2

Humphrey School features Roy Wilkins, too

Is there any safe place to express concern that the rapid resegregation of our public school system is not a happy accident, brought on by the heavenly solution of school choice? 

Apparently not at the Humphrey School’s National School Choice Week forum. 

As I left the forum, I could not stop thinking about Humphrey and his legacy. Back in front of my computer, I found a 2011 New York Times opinion piece about him, written by Rick Perlstein. Both Humphrey and Ronald Reagan would have turned 100 in 2011, and this connection, and contrast, framed Perlstein’s piece.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

JANUARY was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, and the planet nearly stopped turning on its axis to recognize the occasion. Today is the 100th anniversary of Hubert H. Humphrey’s birth, and no one besides me seems to have noticed.

That such a central figure in American history is largely ignored today is sad. But his diminution is also, more importantly, an impediment to understanding our current malaise as a nation, and how much better things might have been had today’s America turned out less Reaganite and more Humphreyish.

That’s it. This is the framework I have been looking for. What would our education policy discussions be like today, if America had turned out “less Reagnite” and “more Humphreyish”? The hammering narrative of failure, applied with force to our nation’s public school system, found fertile ground in the Reagan era, of course, through the overhyped “Nation at Risk” report. That report helped propel America away from further investment in public schools, and towards school choice schemes (hint: privatization).

Deregulation, Perlstein calls it. And that was the flavor of the day at the Humphrey School’s event. Deregulation in the education “marketplace” will solve our problems. In fact, according to the “bipartisan” panel, there is nothing a deregulated, choice-based education system cannot solve. Universal preschool? Great idea, said Reichgott Junge, but too expensive. Let’s charterize the preschool market, instead, and throw some scholarships, otherwise known as vouchers, on top of it.  

And while we are at it, perhaps we should follow panelist Richard Komer’s line of thinking, regarding the Constitution. Komer waxed enthusiastic about all of the wonderful things a deregulated, voucher-filled education landscape could offer–including more discipline, more uniforms, more religion, and more racist, elitist assumptions about what “poor minorities” want. Public schools could do this, too, he said, if only the Constitution was not standing in the way.

And no one in the room, no one gathered in the Humphrey School (except for one clear outsider who was swiftly dismissed), stood up or spoke up to challenge the frightening threads so visible in Komer’s–and, frankly, the panel’s–ideas. 

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money

—The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais

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!

[Exq_ppd_form]