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The color coded politics of education in Minneapolis

 The voters of Minneapolis have spoken, who knows what they want? 


On the face of it the historically expensive school board election Minneapolis just experienced has brought two very different candidates to the board.

The first place winner, incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, defends traditional public education orthodoxy. She received enormous support from national and local labor funders, the wealthiest white households in Minneapolis, and a motley group of disaffected people of color who routinely work against themselves.

Across the bow is former city council member Don Samuels who took second place. He having enjoyed overwhelming support from school reform funders, activists, and city parents. Unlike Gagnon, he has stubbornly advocated educational reforms that many Minneapolis liberals run from: charter schools and school choice.

How could the same electorate select these opposable candidates to the same board on the same night?

I don’t have a great answer. It’s complicated.

The third way fails

In the aftermath I predict there will be soul searching and analysis. Campaigners and geeks will consider how the winners won, and how the third place finisher, union organizer Iris Altamirano, lost. The requisite second-guessing and search for meaning in numbers will likely produce more opinion than insight.

Altamirano’s case should call into question much of the feel-good wisdom in liberal Minneapolis. Her immovably positive and inclusive campaign message sought to bridge the gulf of constituencies fractured by the polarized education wars. I’ve seen research in the past year suggesting the existence of a mythical people who live in a magic place called the “movable middle,” and these people are said to be desirous of a less caustic debate that is rational and solutions-based.

I have yet to truly see those unicorns vote in political elections. This time around Gagnon’s most useful ploy was to paint her leading opponent as a tool for the billionaire money machine. In return, Samuels best defense was highlighting Gagnon’s disingenuous positioning as a little independent mom running for school board even as national, state, and city labor titans were bankrolling her “grassroots” campaign.

The idea that people actually want middle ground in their politics conflicts with how people actually vote. Contrasts matter.

Instead of seeing Altamirano’s attempt to be a uniter of reformers and unionists as good organizing 101 (which makes sense given her background as an SEIU organizer), her attempt to be the bridge builder opened her to a stringent purity test by both the anti-reform and reform camps.

From my view she did better with one group than the other.

School reformers put money, time, and shoe leather into getting her elected even though she was far the reform lightning rod they would want her to be. That’s rare. Reformers, like other endorsing groups, usually want to know a candidate will stand tall on reform once elected.

Meanwhile, on the union side things went hella backwards for Altamirano. That camp absolutely savaged her in backrooms. It was as if her unimpeachable street credibility as a union organizer, her great American story of making it from agricultural fields to Ivy League graduation, and her value add as a Latino community member in a district that has rarely had adequate representation on the school board were immaterial. The harassment she endured at the hands of Gagnon and DFL party leaders should be a wake up call about how people of color too often have to put their color in their back pocket and suck up some humiliating and paternalistic backwinds to maintain membership.

Knowing your place

It isn’t as if this is a new problem with the DFL and labor.

MPS board director Tracine Asberry suffered the same indignities when she ran in 2012. That year the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers passed on endorsing her even though she was an educator, a dedicated MPS parent, and former MFT member. That year they supported a 26 year old corporate attorney with no kids in the district over her. When asked about their dubious decision they gave a wacky response: he was Asian and would bring diversity.

In 2010 Chanda Smith Baker encountered a hostile DFL too. Even with her direct knowledge of school administration and her work directly supporting the families with kids MPS struggles to educate, the DFL convention that year fell over themselves for Dick Mammen. His biggest claim to fame was having done a political favor for almost every political person in the Twin Cities.

The thing these women of color have in common is that they each tried to find middle ground with a heavily white constituency while navigating the tension between smiling a lot (don’t want to look angry) and maintaining self-respect and their ethnic pride. Each of them were better educated than their opponents – with more relevant experience for a school board seat – but by the laws of race were advised not to show it too much.

During the 2010 race Rebecca Gagnon made the loaded charge that Smith-Baker had no business running for school board because she had so many kids at home and a career. Gagnon contrasted her own situation by proudly announcing her husband had a great job which afforded her the privilege of running for school board. It sounded as if she thought it actually qualified her to run. Smith-Baker began hearing echoes of Gagnon’s pre-feminist sentiment from constituents and endorsing bodies who asked how she would balance home life with school board work.

In 2006 I ran for school board. I had kids. No one ever asked me how I’d manage it. In that case I guess the difference was male body parts because I don’t remember anyone questioning the home/life balance of Alberto Monserrate, the late Hussein Samatar, Tom Madden, and the never ending list of fathers who ran for school board.

It would be fair to point another way in which women of color are held to a different standard. Gagnon and most of the men (me included) running for school board have less fancy book learnin’ than the women often discounted as being “not ready” for the board. Altamirano is Ivy League. Smith-Baker has a masters degree. Asberry, a doctorate. This places them in an extreme minority for people of color, and in an elite group of Americans overall.

But school board elections in Minneapolis are pageants. It isn’t a merit-based processes meant to bring particularly skilled individuals to seats that govern a $700 million institution responsible for the lives of children.

In Asberry’s case she was told to drop the title of “doctor” in her literature because white people in Southwest Minneapolis were presumed to be “so sick of black people hiding behind their doctorates when they aren’t actual medical doctors.”

True story.

I bet any of these women could relay stories of how their handlers worked to groom them for a discriminating, mostly white, electorate.

But, maybe they didn’t all get the memo. When cornered, each of these women did the opposite of what was expected of them. They stuck to their guns and trusted their own wisdom.

When Gagnon’s team ambushed Altamirano with questions after a school board forum she answered then decisively said “that’s all I got” as they continued to badger her. When a spitting mad Rep. Jim Davnie got in Smith-Baker’s grill at the 2010 DFL convention and called her a liar because he didn’t like her answer to a question, she stood her ground even as he screamed and pointed his bony finger in her face. When the powers that be tried to get Asberry to blame poverty for poor educational outcomes, she tapped her own experience in the classroom to say black children can learn.

Their tendency toward social insolence refutes ages of racial social code and infuriates good Minneapolitans who want to “educate” people of color when we fail to see how superior their logic is for us.

How dare we not accept social training from people qualified by their absence of color to be our masters?

The more things change

This all reminds me of my run nearly 10 years ago. When I screened with the labor bosses there were probably 25 people in the room, all leaders from different bargaining groups. I remember two people of color: my campaign manager who is Hebrew, and Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU.

It was a room of mostly white haired Skandasotans with gentle smiles and hardened eyes. I remember thinking it was incomprehensible that rooms like that vet whether or not candidates are worthy of a seat on a board overseeing the education of a mostly poor, mostly non-white school district.

I’m happy to admit that things are not exactly the same any more. Back then labor dominance was complete. The unspoken but well heeded rule was one could not win without labor and DFL support. Just four years ago a newly elected Gagnon (and her colleagues) signed a letter on union letterhead to the previous board expressing complete solidarity with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. In this last election she avoided any endorsements by labor and sought to distance herself publicly from the MFT, claiming a new found independence that was more of a veil than a defensible truth.

In a short time labor endorsement in school board elections has gone from being a necessary evil to merely being an evil.

Still, in a city with a Democratic Farmer Labor party that is short on democratic types, and has never had any farmers, the rules of the game are still completely controlled by unionists who look nothing like Altamirano, Asberry, Smith-Baker, or the children served by MPS.

Though I appreciate Altamirano’s attempt at a third way forward, and I hope for that level of peacemaking to one day emerge, the reality for today is that Gagnon represents many years of deceiving racial law written in invisible ink.

Don Samuels represents the explicit writing on the wall that states the past will not be prologue. With or without labor and political parties and representation from the hegemony, we will infiltrate the dominate systems that serve our people and drive them toward relevancy.

And, those two candidates should not be treated as equivalent. One is clearly better.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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