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Here we go again: white Minneapolis families tilt the scales in their favor – again

 

The phrase “watch whiteness work” has never been more appropriate in Minneapolis’ education politics.

More on that shortly, but first the backdrop.

The Minneapolis Public Schools are broke. Between 2012 and 2017 the district busted its budget, spent its reserves and dug a hole that now challenges its very existence. Two years ago Ed Graff, MPS’ superintendent, warned of the district’s looming deficit (which reached $33 million last year) and promised a plan to get the system back to fiscal health.

After over a year of tweaking, trimming, squeezing, plotting, and planning Graff’s financial team delivered a proposal for cuts that was equal parts thoughtful and painful. It was a jagged pill to swallow, but fair people could see how it was necessary.

Unfair people were not as accommodating. Some of them adopted Veruca Salt as their spirit animal.

One group, parents at Washburn High School, home to the child of a school board member, responded by quickly organizing to make sure budget cuts did not take away any of their ponies.

Here’s a spoiler: they won. Whiteness always does in Minneapolis.

Funding (white) Privilege

Washburn is the lowest poverty and whitest school in Minneapolis, and the majority of the money cut from their budget was from a special fund given to them by a previous superintendent to subsidize their wide array of elective classes that poorer schools didn’t have.

Washburn and South High schools got the money in 2015 so they could move from six-period to seven-period days. The funds were presumably intended to ease their transition with the expectation that the schools would make budget adjustments to pay the continuing costs.

They didn’t make the adjustments and instead treated the special funding as mad money. Last year Washburn gave up their seventh period but they still want the money.

Schools that already had a seven-period day, like Roosevelt High School, didn’t get the same bump in funding that Washburn did which meant they were paying for something that the superintendent was subsidizing for wealthier schools (using money from the general fund).

In short, the funds being cut by Graff from their budget was money they shouldn’t have received in the first place. But, when you are privileged, losing anything seems like oppression.

(White) Parent Power

The power of Southside parents was evident when Director Rebecca Gagnon introduced a surprise resolution that took her school board colleagues and district staff off center. It called for $6.4 million of “time-adjustment” funding to be restored immediately, with some or all of that money coming from future revenue earmarked to restore the district’s anemic reserves to the level specified in board policy.

The district is supposed to reserve a fund balance that is 8% of total expenses to weather unforeseen events like a government shut down. The current board voted to suspend that policy for one year so they could draw from the reserves to solve past budget shortfalls. Since then the reserve has since dwindled to a dangerous 4% for the fiscal year 2018. That means Gagnon’s resolution could drive MPS into statutory operating debt and make it a budgetary red-light district under the watchful thumb of Minnesota’s Department of Education.

To that point, Ibrahima Diop (the district’s Chief Financial Officer) said at a recent school board meeting that the reserves could only cover two weeks of expenses if there was an emergency. Gagnon’s response was to suggest the district get outside financial advice to second guess Diop’s understanding of the budget.

Everyone who encounters Diop says the district doesn’t deserve him. Almost no one considers Gagnon a cognitive champion.

A tough process

At the front end of the budgeting process district leaders must predict how many students will be enrolled, how much money that will come from local levies, referendums, and property taxes (along with state and federal sources); and how much money is needed to keep district commitments to staff, programs, schools, and special student populations.

The state only chips in $6,067 per regular education student, but some students fit into special categories that generate substantially greater funding. For example, students struggling with poverty, those that are learning English as an additional language, those that qualify for special education services, and those needing gifted and talented programs generate additional funds on top of the basic formula.

MPS also gets $16 million for integration efforts, $9 million for extended day learning options, $20 million in state grants, and $41 million in Federal support for programs mostly aimed at addressing poverty.

Altogether this means a school’s fortune is tied to how many students they attract and the number of its students qualifying for special categories.

Feed the rich

Clearly, Minneapolis’ high schools with the largest number of affluent parents are the winners of Gagnon’s resolution.

Washburn would get have its time adjustment funding returned along with $241,800 in one-year bridge money, and Southwest would get an even longer bridge at $293,000. The former would end up recovering the majority of their budget cuts, and the latter would actually see a budget increase over last year. The majority of MPS’ poor schools can’t say the same.

Gagnon has said she feared failure to pass the resolution that organizers at her school wrote for her would cause them to bolt the district or actively work to kill the upcoming $30 million referendum.

That’s hardball.

So, who are the losers? In short, we don’t know yet. How Graff squeezes the proverbial blood from a stone is a mystery. MPS staff agonized for months on how to obtain a structurally balanced budget (one where projected expenditures are less than projected revenue), so it isn’t as if there is an unseen pain-free way to produce $6.4 million.

22 of the schools prioritized in the new budget have greater than 70%. poverty, far higher than Southwest’s and Washburn’s rates. They may get a small increase in funds upfront, but they should brace for a kick in the ass later.

For example, Patrick Henry’s budget reduction was greater than Washburn’s (1.9 million vs. 1.6 million), but their share recovered ($550,605 vs. $787,248) from Gagnon’s resolution may not cover other services the Graff may be cut to fulfill it. This includes custodians, English Language Learner services, support for struggling black male students, and minority teacher recruitment.

That’s something Gagnon’s crew omitted when courting Henry and other schools to join forces with Washburn.

The question we all should  ask once the details of Graff’s new budget are announced is how did a board with a majority of representatives from communities of color allow one white school board member and a handful of white parents act as a shadow government and privately rewrite an urban school district’s entire budget merely to save a few dollars for their own kids?

The answer is that Gagnon endorsed them all during their elections, something we should remember as she seeks another term on the MPS board this year.

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

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If your presidential debate isn’t fit for kids, you’re not fit to be president

The sad presidential debate

In a time when concerns about public health are stealing precious learning time from America’s children, it’s sad that this week’s presidential debate was another dispiriting lesson in failed leadership.

As citizens, we should expect the contest for the American presidency a top civics learning opportunity, but instead, we got schoolyard rock-throwing on Tuesday that wasn’t worthy of our children’s eyes, ears, or seat time.

That’s a shameful sign of three-plus errant years of declining decorum and lost integrity at the top of the American leadership pile – mostly because a lout has led us into moral anarchy.

If a president is the nation’s exemplar of our values and virtues, a presidential debate is a test, then Donald J. Trump spells trouble. The president I saw on Tuesday was a peevish and sweating example of everything I teach my kids not to be. He was rude, accusatory, irresponsible, blame-shifting, dishonest, and, worst of all, a nasty bully.

Let’s be honest here, if Trump were a Black 6th-grader behaving this way in a Houston classroom, he might be suspended and not allowed to return until his parents met with school staff about his self-regulation challenges.

Now, this is where I’m supposed to dazzle you with my broadmindedness by pointing out ways in which Biden fell short too.

Hard pass.

That form of mindless bothsiderism is a shortcut to thinking and judgment. It’s not good for a responsible citizen and fails as an appropriate example for children.

Unlike the president, I don’t see value in teaching our children to equate white supremacists with the convenient ghost of Antifa or the political cartoon of Black Lives Matter. To overstate something moral and obvious: There are no “very fine people” who are so spitting mad about the existence of non-whites that they descend on communities with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

If I fault Biden for anything, it’s not being assertive enough about centering these mass-media opportunities on the nation’s children. In my view, his education plan is expensively inconsequential concerning the things that matter most, but are talked about least: quality teaching, learning to standards, evidence-based educational interventions, and academic outcomes that close gaps between the haves and have-nots.

I waited for his promise to move hell and Earth, unions and bureaucrats, publics and privates, lefties and right-wingers, to ensure every American child gets a practical education that prepares her for life in the economic mainstream (a promise that every president since Lyndon Johnson has made), but instead, the former Vice President mostly shadow-boxed the patently erratic orangish gentleman to his right.

My friends, please expect more. When these two private school parents who want to lead the free world take the stage next time to present competing visions for where we should go as a people, let’s hold them to two demands.

Trump v. Biden: who will stand for children in the next presidential debate?

First, they commit to being appropriate examples for our children of how great Americans behave, think, and debate. Or, let them disqualify themselves for failing on that point.

Second, they explicitly detail how their policies will prepare the next generation to be productive members of a free country. They must articulate a plan for systems and policies that allow children to learn in ways that best suit them.

We are so far from that now. Poor academic outcomes for racial minorities, students in poverty, and students with special needs are all too enduring. For example, in most states, less than a quarter of Black students read or perform math proficiently. Non-white students get the worst prepared teachers who – as research tells us – hold implicit biases against them. Further, students of color are more often identified for negative discipline consequences than for gifted programs (even when they don’t qualify for the former and do qualify for the latter).

At the same, education bureaucracies stifle the creativity of teachers through endless standardization. Their lobbying groups fight the emergence of innovative schools and programs that come from chartering laws. Their programs too often limit the most advanced students by gearing the system to a catch-all, mediocre middle.

On top of all that, legacy debts that were born of poor financial decisions compound over time and rob our students of their full per-pupil income by paying for yesterday’s obligations at the expense of tomorrow’s promise.

All the while, we lament the mythical cuts to education funding as the bill for public miseducation and its systemic failures escalates annually.

Hopefully, when they meet again, both candidates seeking our votes in the upcoming election will have something profound to say about how we change the game for students and families. 

The candidates need to can speak to raising the expectations for results in education. We need to know how colleges can prepare better teachers for the classroom and how schools can better support them once they are there. Above all, we need to hear how these candidates can provide more resources directly to families so they can determine how, when, where, and what their children learn. We need a moonshot for things like getting all cities, towns, and rural areas wired with broadband and how we expand the educational opportunities diverse families need.

I’ll be watching the next presidential debate for all that and hoping against hope that two candidates worthy of the nation they want to lead show up with all their best faculties on display. Above all else, I hope they remember the children.

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Crisis parenting isn’t easy, and carry on

We can't help our children by living in our powerlessness

Who will ever tally the toll of mass school closings that have put many families into crisis parenting mode? I’m not sure, but the media messages we get need to be more informative.

There are too many stories about how the sky is falling, and too few about what we can do about it.

Let me use a scenario and to two people.

The scenario: you’re in an elevator in a tall Chicago building with two other people. There is a big bump that jolts the elevator, the lights flicker, and you can tell something bad could be happening.

Person numero uno in the elevator with you starts screaming “we’re going to die!

This is the end!

Person numero dos is calm. She appears to be assessing the situation and considering possibilities for escape.

Person numero uno is the media. He uses words like “disaster” to describe challenges parents face with remote learning. It’s godawful he says. Too hard. Kids hate the new normal. The technology glitches out constantly or bores or confuses them. Teachers cry online. Parents suck at teaching. It’s nearly impossible to stay on top of kids and their studies while also working (for those privileged enough to work from home).

Along those lines, columnist Peg Tyre wrote in Forbes last spring “[r]eality is dawning that parents of school-aged children can’t work and educate their children at the same time.”

I take issue with that. Parents can and must educate their children, even while balancing other demands of life. Even during a global pandemic. There is no other option. Period.

Damnit, that’s what being a parent means. You signed up for it. Now do it.

I suggest you consult with Person numero dos. She won’t tell you what you want to hear (that you’re a martyr and woe is you), but she’ll say what you need to hear (toughen up buttercup).

No, life isn’t always convenient.

Yes, you’re in possibly the toughest situation ever.

Yet, worshipping the problem won’t make it less tough. These are your kids and you were always responsible for moving mountains to get them the education they deserve. Schooling has made it easy for you to idle on autopilot, but no more.

I’m not saying Person number uno is wrong to be alarmed. Reality is on his side. There will be negative consequences of closed schools and the curtailing of daily classroom instruction. It will almost certainly stunt the academic growth of children under-resourced families.

We weren’t prepared to turn our homes into makeshift schools without warning. We quickly feel inadequate about assisting our kids. They keep asking us about concepts we haven’t studied in years. We also worry about the looming social emotional and mental health consequences of the isolation of quarantine.

Some will say I’m glossing over the wildly different financial and social situations families live in. Obviously the single parent with a job in hospitality faces far greater challenges than telecommuting professionals currently forming learning pods for their kids. And yet, no matter where you live on the economic totem wallowing won’t help you or your children. Only character will.

I see story after story about the inequities that will be widened because wealthier parents are hiring tutors or teachers and setting up their own micro-schools. Recognizing that as true doesn’t absolve anyone from having to answer the most powerful question: “what am I going to do?

Who has the information that will help us do our best for our kids wherever they are? What is our inventory of resources, connections, and skillsets?

What power do we have that we aren’t using?

Panic and pity will always be inferior to extreme ownership and stress management in my mind. The best thing we can teach children right now is how to confront adversity with a clear head and fortitude.

To that end, it’s time for Person number dos to tell Person numero uno to sit down, zip it, and speak only when spoken to. This is crisis parenting and we should aim to win.

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Children and families are hurting while you take selfies

Families are having a tough time and that’s especially hard on children. So, you’d think that would generate empathy and generosity. Instead, it looks like selfish gene has taken over.

Let me not overstate the problem. But a New York Times story about the ugly and petty clashes pitting Silicon Valley workers with children vs. the those without children is sad commentary on where we are.

Consider this:

When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, hosted a companywide videoconference on Aug. 20, more than 2,000 employees voted to ask her what more Facebook could do to support nonparents, since its other policies had benefited parents.

The question struck a nerve. An employee wrote in comments accompanying the video feed that it was “unfair” that nonparents could not take advantage of the same leave policy afforded parents. Another wrote that while the procedure for taking leave was usually difficult, it was “easy breezy” for parents.

This problem repeated at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. Inter-office chats raged with childless employees expressing frustration with their co-workers who have children, and working parents firing back.

 

A key to understanding the conflict, at least in my mind, is this snippet from the story: “[the problem is] where workers tend to be younger and have come to expect generous perks and benefits in exchange for letting their jobs take over their lives.”

This is an indictment of the always-on self-loving generation who demand to compensated greatly for losing themselves into work (something that is killing them). 

It’s also a mark against the previous generation that parented them during the self-esteem movement which produced little more than entitlement and isolation.

We should fear repeating those detachment issues with today’s kids who are out-of-school and living through Chromebooks, iPads, and iPhones.

Isn’t it telling the Times’ story is set at tech companies? They are basically narcissism factories providing clout chasing ME-llennials digital tools to live that selfie life, why wouldn’t they attract workers who put their wants ahead of the needs of others.?

Can we really expect the generation that swipes left or right for love to demonstrate genuine empathy? Can we get them to look up from their app long enough to see 9 million of their fellow Americans have dropped out of work to care for children or an elder relative? 

These families don’t have employer-paid wading pools, bike repair shops, free meals, and doggie cafes – but, who cares?

But, they should. We all should. I’m as libertarian as the next guy, but your issues will often become “our” issues. 

Nearly one in five working adults reports not working because the pandemic shuttered childcare options. That’s crazy.

According to the federal government “Of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands.”

I don’t know when we stopped believing that children and their parents should be a policy priority? And, no, it isn’t one generation of us suffering from an empathy deficit. America is afflicted with that as a whole.

I don’t have an answer for what workplaces do to make their childless workers feel they have benefits equal to working parents, but I know more than ever we need everyone to put kids first.

If not, we’ll all face death by selfie.

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