Twin Cities school board elections are not very democratic, and the big-D democrats hereabouts are just fine with that
Have you heard the term “fakequity”? It’s a genius bit of shorthand. It means to talk about racial or socioeconomic equity–to study it, appoint task forces, tweak the nomenclature—without actually disrupting the way that power and its corollary, money, accrues.
I raise this because with the election just weeks out, we’re keister-deep in urgent, breathy talk about equity. Some of these narratives are much more palatable to the white and the privileged than others. The most dispiriting aspect is the vigor with which the defense of the status quo is being depicted as a crusade for racial and socioeconomic justice.
Nowhere is this more true than in races where public education is an issue. It was the dominant storyline last year regarding the St. Paul School Board, where an equity-branded DFL and teacher-union slate, now ensconced, is attempting to figure out how to square its campaign promises with some harsh choices.
And it’s the story in Minneapolis, where the impending school board election—again, possibly a sweep by a DFL and teacher-union slate–is positively shellacked in talk of equity. Never mind that the new candidates’ position statements are heavy on nostalgia for a perhaps-imagined era where recess ruled and someone else worried about that pesky poverty.
The slate’s election would give DFL traditionalists five and possibly six seats on the nine-member board.
It’s not just a St. Paul and Minneapolis problem. DFLers who have bucked party traditionalists at the state level on education have found themselves exiled to committees and caucuses where they have no influence, or have come up against primary challengers backed by their supposed partisans.
Which is exactly as our liberal chattering classes would have it. The process of choosing school board members is undemocratic and punishing and the visibility of the people willing to say so just increases. Yet the rhetoric-reality divide isn’t going to close until the DFL grapples honestly with the inequities that lie at the root of Minnesota’s nation-leading gaps in outcomes for wealthy white children and everyone else.
Because here’s the thing: Without equitable outcomes, you don’t have equity. And when just 21 percent black children, 19 percent of American Indians, 31 percent of Latinos and an eye-poppingly abysmal 15 percent of students with disabilities can read and do math at grade level, you don’t have equitable outcomes.
Who wants to bet that instead, the party doubles down on trying to get rid of—or at least muddy–the flow of information that illuminated the inequities and allowed their quantification? Because the problem with fakequity, of course, is the data that reveals that inequities persist.
And more subversive, the data that reveals that with the right supports, poor children, children with disabilities and children of color can learn.
Indeed the issue also is playing out right now at the state level, where an astonishingly long list of education policies related to equity or civil rights are being rewritten with lots of input from the DFL insiders at the Department of Education and Education Minnesota, the L in DFL. Sundry proposals would “decouple” data from decision-making.
All four of the board candidates endorsed at an ugly, rancorous DFL citywide convention last spring, for example, answered a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers candidate questionnaire with statements that they do not support the use of student test data to make “high stakes decisions such as school closure and staffing.”
I’m assuming the wording is deliberately ambiguous, so as to summon a specter that might or might not ever visit MPS. Staffing sounds a lot like firing, doesn’t it? And yet it could also mean ensuring that the kids who show up to school the farthest behind get the most effective teachers.
Bob Walser, who is running to unseat incumbent Josh Reimnitz—who, for the record also answered that he opposes said use of assessment data—replied with a rhetorical flourish: “To use these tools for significant decisions does, in my view, unacceptable violence to the vulnerable and unique learners in our care.”
What about the unacceptable violence that awaits the one in five black and American Indian children who can’t read or perform math at grade level? Why wouldn’t we use data on student learning to attempt to head off the unacceptable violence of the school to prison pipeline?
Or there’s the response from KerryJo Felder, an education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation: “I would like to see it go back to the regular ways of mapping a student’s success.”
Which is so spot on, right? Because presumably the “regular ways” were grades, teacher reports and other subjective measures that did not, until apples-to-apples assessments became the law of the land in 2003, supply data by race. The better the data, the more we know not just about racial gaps but about what works to close them.
And so it was that 10 years ago school board races began to include debate about doing more of what works, and about making some significant changes to the teachers’ contract. The DFL endorsement has historically been tied to the endorsement of the teacher union, which has rejected efforts to do things like use the data to identify the most effective teachers and put them in front of the neediest kids.
Because the slate of board candidates is typically chosen at the DFL city conventions–attended only by die-hards and easily manipulated–over the last decade various community organizations have held forums where parents, students and others can show up and ask questions that challenge party orthodoxy. A number of these were groups organized by people of color.
Which sparked a backlash, which by the 2014 elections had become so mean-spirited that the party threatened to pull its backing from a DFL-endorsed Latina labor leader who, because of the dynamics of the four-way race, was sometimes present at events with candidates not endorsed by the DFL. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent.
This year neither of the incumbents trying to win re-election to seats where the DFL this year chose to endorse newcomers has a controversial record. But neither is either of them a creature of the party. And yet they were literally booed and hissed at at the convention.
Josh Reimnitz, who faces Bob Walser in District 4, has not cast a single hot-button vote. Sure, he’s a former Teach for America corps member, but his MPS board work has been about—wait for it—the super-important but nerdy topic of governance.
In District 6, Tracine Asberry is running against Ira Jourdain, an American Indian MPS parent and county social services worker. An educator of teachers, among other things, Asberry hasn’t cast any terribly “reformy” votes or proposed any of the reforms in the oft-circulated conspiracy theories, either. She is a woman of color focused on issues of equity—supposedly the goal of the DFL-endorsed slate.
(Instead of running for re-election in District 2, incumbent Kim Ellison is running against only token opposition for the citywide seat being vacated by Carla Bates, who has been a strong, independent voice on equity issues. DFL-endorsed Kerry Jo Felder is running against Kimberly Caprini in 2.)
Certainly there’s tremendous work to be done to refine student assessment and to make sure adult accountability is fair, but is the argument seriously that data shouldn’t inform decisions?
Forget the mass firing of teachers or school privatizations or the other mythological catastrophes supposedly wrapped up with the tests. The element that’s really dangerous to the status quo is being able to identify and learn from success. Imagine what could be possible if the party that rules this one-party town chose to take that on.