On Jan. 10, 2017, the new School Board was sworn in for the rest of the school year and all of 2017-18. Barring any unusual occurrences, there won’t be a School Board election until November 2018. The newly-elected POTUS would not be sworn in for 10 more days, and in the City of Minneapolis, bastion of DFL and all things slightly to its left, the majority was uneasy, or worse. Then Jan. 20 came and went. There was a big Women’s March. A lot of horrible executive orders were issued, and roundly opposed. And then Betsy DeVos was appointed, and approved by the U.S. Senate, as the new secretary of education. In the liberal wing of the education world, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. You would think this was the first time we had ever had an education chief with a privatizing agenda. But no, this is the first time we ever had one with a completely unapologetic and unhidden privatizing agenda.
Privatization, although still a very hot topic nationwide, seems to be receding a bit in strength in Minneapolis. We still have the Minneapolis Foundation and the Itasca Project and AchieveMpls and GenerationNext. But there were hints that the Minneapolis Public Schools system was quietly “getting out of the business” of charter schools. Maybe the charter schools weren’t really living up to their hype here, and maybe that’s because, for all the mistakes, and embarrassments, and small failures and the still present racial achievement gap, public schools are just not as horrible here as they are in some other “big cities,” and so the charters would have to go that extra mile or so to show how much better they are, something they apparently haven’t been able to do. We still have Teach for America. But we also still have a kick-ass teachers’ union, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. We still have the “philanthropists” in favor of “reform,” having spent an unsupportable amount of money in the 2014 elections. But we also have three new directors elected in 2016 without that infusion of “reformer’s” money, so at least it didn’t become the new normal. (And only one of the two candidates favored with the money shower in 2014, about 25 times what was spent in previous School Board elections, even won.)
Still, this is no reason to relax our vigilance; far from it, especially given the current head of the federal department. Putting this into context, I am going off on two separate tangents, and then will get back to Minneapolis for local application. The first tangent is why we at Southside Pride oppose GERM, which stands for the Global Education Reform Movement. First, a few things that are not why we oppose this movement. We don’t oppose reform, or even reform of education, but in this case, the words are a euphemism. We don’t oppose charter schools per se. We don’t oppose “school choice” per se. (In fact, Minneapolis was doing that before the GERM anyway.) We certainly don’t oppose innovation, teacher professionalism or parental involvement. All of these ideas have been cleverly conflated with the GERM, and the message spun to say if you’re against school reform, you’re against these Good Things. What we oppose are two locked-in, non-negotiable aims of the GERM, which are its core values, with choice and innovation and freedom being the dressed-up front to hide the ugly reality. The first of these core values is union-busting, and the second, always its partner in crime when the union in question is public-sector, is privatization. It would take a whole separate article to tease apart the core aims from the window-dressing and expose the most nefarious tactics used, so for brevity we will just leave it at that. It’s the union-busting and the drive toward impoverishing public school districts while diverting money, through vouchers, tax-sheltering scholarships and other mechanisms, into unaccountable, union-repelling, private academies. That’s what we oppose.
The other tangent is about how GERM is not exclusively a right-wing, a conservative, or even a Republican agenda. And therein lies a weird paradox of the interplay between party politics and neoliberal policies that is nowhere so glaring as in the education sector. Baldly stated, that paradox is coming home to roost now as liberals all over the country are suddenly staunch opponents of policies they were happy to either passively support or actively ignore when “their guy” was in power—privatizing schools being no less an example than drone attacks or covert war.
The day that DeVos was confirmed in her new role, I went to Wikipedia to check her out, and then traced back the previous heads of the ED back to William Bennett, only the second ED head and the Reagan appointee who started this whole reform brouhaha. (And by the way, the Department of Education is relatively new on the scene. It was only created in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, as part of the reorganization of the former Department of HEW—Health, Education and Welfare. The same act also created the Department of HHS—Health and Human Services.) While this is fairly trivial in essence, an example of the bizarre paradox I mentioned above can be found in the following snip from a news item in Education Week: “President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, would be the first person to head the department in its more than 35-year history who hasn’t either attended public schools or sent her own children to them.” I must beg to differ. My Wikipedia search had informed me that: “[Arne] Duncan [secretary of education from 2009 to 2015] attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and later Harvard College …” and also that: “Their [Arne Duncan’s and his wife Karen’s] children, Claire and Ryan (ages 14 and 11), attend a private school in Chicago.” (U Lab Schools, as it is known, is described as “private, co-educational.”) Arne Duncan was the highly controversial ED head under most of the Obama administration, and prior to that, the equally controversial CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan has never been an educator himself, and holds no advanced degrees in education or anything else. Can you just imagine the outcry if a Republican had appointed someone like that to a cabinet post?
By contrast, the reviled education secretary who created No Child Left Behind, Rod Paige, is a paragon, if a history grappling with the issues of public education is your criterion. Besides being the first African-American secretary of education, he has a doctorate in phys. ed., and a history that includes college teaching, football coaching, college administration, School Board member and district superintendent. Still going strong at 83, he is now interim president of the school where he was both an undergraduate and a football coach—Jackson State in Mississippi. Of course, he was also a big champion of charter schools and once called the nation’s largest teacher’s union a terrorist organization. Nobody’s perfect. Potentially the best ED head for the cause of saving without destroying public schools only had less than a year in the office and was DeVos’s immediate predecessor: John King Jr. He was the second African American in the office, the youngest to ever hold the office, and the first Hispanic (he is Puerto Rican). He was both a public school student and a private school student, and was also an actual teacher in a public school as well as a charter school. His two daughters attend public school.
Back down here at the local level, things are stable by comparison to the turmoil of the last two years. So far, the most controversial thing about the new Superintendent Ed Graff is his pedagogical method—social-emotional learning. (But at least he has a pedagogical method, because he has actually been a teacher!) The Teach for America alumnus school board member Josh Reimnitz was replaced in the 2016 elections, by Bob Walser. Also replaced was Tracine Asberry, who was by all accounts a good and popular director, but her successor, Ira Jourdain, also holds the promise to be a progressive voice on the board. The other new director is District 2’s Kerry Jo Felder, who won the position left vacant when Kim Ellison successfully ran for the open at-large position. The new chair is Rebecca Gagnon, and Ellison is vice-chair. The new Student Board representative is Gabriel Spinks, from Edison High School. It’s early to be predicting how well this board will function. They have had only two meetings, and have not been under huge pressure yet. Of course there is the “pressure” of having to respond to various threats coming down from the White House and the new ED, such as “crackdowns” on immigration and rescinding the protections for transgender students. These are serious enough, but the brunt is borne by students in red states in the latter case (because the ED really has far less power than state and local government in education matters) and students in the less hospitable cities in the former case. Superintendent Graff made a statement assuring immigrant students of their safety, as was to be expected. There was no dissension, nor is there likely to be, either within the school system or between it and the city government, when it comes to immigration. None of us here are going to be enabling the new administration on that one.