I’ve been sitting at the keyboard for the longest time, trying to write a post about the upcoming closure of the contract talks between Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers’ union and honestly, it’s like enduring Ben Stein on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. You wake up in a slick of your own drool, and it’s still going on.
You’re forgiven for not having a clue what’s up with the negotiations. There’s been precious little coverage, and what little there’s been has focused on the fact that MPS and St. Paul Public Schools are in deficit-plugging mode and so there’s not much to bargain over.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, has been engaged in a pale facsimile of the exercise their St. Paul brethren carried out a couple of years ago wherein negotiators managed to convince at least a swath of the community that the talks were centered on getting families the schools their children deserve.
I’ve read both sides’ proposals and there’s plenty in there worth unpacking, but to be truthful it feels like the crucial juncture demanding to be marked right now is a different one.
There are a lot of people in this town who have made big promises to our kids, and who are drawing big salaries to do the work of delivering. This is true within the district. It’s true within the federation. And it’s true within the philanthropic organizations that are supposed to be the community backstop to anyone trying to do the hard, risky work of demanding systemic change.
I submit: There is no vision on deck. Certainly no visionary sticking their neck out. The resulting chasm? It looks to be about 50,000 students wide. And it’s weak because it’s all reactionary. As in, tap-dancing faster to define what it’s not than what it is.
God forbid anyone interested in the education of our most challenged children publicly acknowledge being pro-public charter, or pro-school choice. We’re too shellacked into our partisan corners to acknowledge the politically expedient but structurally unsound way both Republicans and DFLers have dealt with education finance since the Ventura Administration.
We’re all scared of our own shadows. Or maybe more accurately, scared of the names we’ve been called over the last decade. Why else would so many of us have polished elevator speeches about what we’re not?
I had mine all typed out and memorized: I am not, nor have I ever, worked for/pledged allegiance to Dick Cheney – yep, an actual accusation, one guess who leveled it – the Koch Brothers, Betsy DeVos. I am not anti-union, though my respect for teachers’ unions has fallen several notches since I realized that pointing out that specific contract provisions are harmful to kids unleashes, well, bullies.
People who can’t make their point using logic call names. And the name-calling has gotten so bad in recent years that people with expertise in education policy can’t be recruited to run for school board.
There are some exceptions. Educators for Excellence, Students for Education Reform, the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership and EdAllies are all doing exactly – and pretty effectively — what they said they would do. Education Evolving, too.
So what’s up with MPS leadership? Superintendent Ed Graff has been on the job 18 months. What’s his vision? When he was hired, he promised a focus on social-emotional learning and equity. Where are those marquee initiatives?
What about the Community Partnership Schools? Are they dead? Moribund? Is anyone going to say anything about it or are they just going to go quietly into the graveyard of initiatives ignobly abandoned?
Because THAT’s a sure-fire way of making sure no one feels the need to take the next directive seriously.
How about the MFT? Did you know the district has proposed that any laid-off teacher who refuses to interview for new positions be placed on an unpaid leave and, if they choose not to interview a second time, be taken off the payroll? The district has also proposed exempting teachers of color trained in the district’s “grow your own” programs from seniority-based layoffs.
The federation has been mute on those pretty common-sense proposals. But, you know, recess and asking the community to fix poverty. (As well as a whole bunch of arcane stuff designed to get out ahead of any adverse ruling in the Janus case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Seriously guys, what’s your plan? And if you say money, you need to direct the DFL recipients of your campaign donations to earmark those funds somewhere other than the general fund, where they have an astonishing tendency to get hoovered up at contract-talks time.
And lastly but perhaps most irritating, what about our philanthropic and think-tank community? What’s up there? I’m getting the sense that the plan, such as it is, is to spend money expanding successful programs and stay a million miles away from anything else. And not let on that this is the plan.
This from people who have political capital. And money. And try as I might to think of one, no reason to fear the bullies.
I’m not suggesting a return to a tired reformer-vs.-traditionalist trope. Those arguments have been worn to threads over the last decade. We’re all wrung out.
But more to the point, we learned a ton in those years about what works. We have the research and the experience – albeit often gleaned elsewhere – to begin work on some transformative things. Some of those things might excite people outside current education advocacy circles.
We know where the status quo has gotten us. Is there anyone – with a vision and the courage to advance it — who’s prepared to step forward and lead?