Budget cuts will continue until morale improves

BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

I thought I was going to have to write something anodyne and pedestrian this time around, due to the dearth of scandals and uproar in the Minneapolis school system. Well, I thought, no one is howling for Ed Graff’s head, there are no school board elections this year, the dropout rate for young male students of color is down slightly, so that new program must be working, and thank heavens we dodged that one bullet so our reading learners are not using materials that feature gross racist stereotypes like they might have been.

Ha! No such luck.

You just have to poke around a bit and, as the fictional Emperor Claudius said, “All the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.” For one thing, the board meeting in August got so contentious that security had to escort Superintendent Graff off the premises for his own safety.

What was that all about? School Resource Officers (SRO, a euphemism for cops in schools)—which despite the rather obvious leanings of the outraged public attendees, passed the board 8 to 1. (KerryJo Felder was the lone “No” vote for renewing the contract for three years.) To be fair, all the high school principals in the system, and over half of the parents, are in favor of having some kind of police presence in the schools. And not renewing the contract would not keep police away; if there is no SRO around, the school office will call 911, which is potentially more dangerous for the students than an officer who is already there and, at least theoretically, familiar with the school and the student body. Also to continue to be fair, there was apparently much thoughtful discussion about the issue and some good suggestions about reforming the SRO program to make the officers a more acceptable presence.

But how to account for the fury of students, parents and community members who just simply want them gone? It’s not that hard to understand, really.

I think there are two equally powerful factors behind this up-swelling of rage: one school-related and one bigger than schools.

The bigger than schools piece is the same force behind Black Lives Matter, behind Colin Kaepernick, and behind calls to abolish prisons, or at least the repugnant institution of private for-profit prisons for a start. Briefly put, this is rage against racism inherent in “the system.” To put it somewhat less briefly, it’s the almost universal acknowledgement nowadays by everyone of every race from the political center leftwards, that our entire criminal justice system is rooted in white supremacy, and the reactions to that knowledge that range from shame to consternation to fervor to change it … to rage. When criminal law, police surveillance and the militarization of civil life intrude into every facet of life—schools, jobs, health care, parenting, recreation and travel—and everywhere this intrusion means disproportionately bad, sometimes fatal, outcomes for people of color, rage is not a crazy reaction.

The school-related one is that SROs are just a visible reminder of the mostly invisible war against poor and non-white public school students that has been going on since Brown v. Board of Education; it’s the insult added to the injury, the icing of disrespect on the cake of pain.
What’s really been happening since about the 1980s is that public school systems in their entirety in the U.S. have been slowly starving.

Poor test scores are used as the weapon to close schools, cramming students into ever larger classes. Research proves what every teacher in the world knows: Class size matters.  The test scores get worse. The spiral only goes one way: down.

If you look at the details of the public school systems in the Twin Cities, it’s easy to believe that things are fine. We have so many individual examples of great programs, small successes, exceptional schools, wonderful principals and super teachers. Our student body is exemplary in their academics, their hard work and talent and their precocious activism. But pull back and look at the big picture, or lift the hood and look at the internal workings of the money engine driving the thing, and a very different picture emerges. We are not in as dire shape as some other systems, but all the pieces are in place here to bring us to the brink of disaster, assuming you would define, as I do, the total loss of public education as disaster.

Jeff Van Wychen, in an article published by the North Star Policy Institute called “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” looked at the history since 2003. “In recent years, the state has restored a significant portion of the cuts in state operating aid to school districts. Even after these increases, however, real state aid to public schools is considerably less than it was 15 years ago. In constant 2018 dollars, state operating aid in the current fiscal year (FY 2018) is projected to be $954 million less than it was in FY 2003; $392 million of this reduction was concentrated in just two school districts: Minneapolis and Saint Paul.  Despite averaging less than 10% of statewide enrollment over this period, these two districts absorbed over 40% of the statewide operating aid reduction.”

Whether they give us good news or bad, the actions of the Minneapolis School Board against this Titanic background always amounts to rearranging the deck chairs. But to be fair, a school board can only do so much. It’s to the Department of Education and the state legislature we must look for real change against the impending doom.

 

PHOTO CAPTION: School Resource Officers (SROs) patrol schools. Photo by tcdailyplanet.net

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