How Two Twin Cities Teachers Gave DeVos Political Cover

What’s the old saw about all the news that’s fit to print?

I am wracking my brain to think why two local news outlets ran a hugely – potentially catastrophically – important story without some basic context that might help readers make sense of it. A third skipped the topic altogether.

This one’s so bad I’m not actually sure what to call it. Malpractice? Ineptitude? Bias by omission? Rank shittiness?

It’s a clear and present danger to democracy, anyhow. I mean, no less than Abraham Lincoln observed that if you want to influence tomorrow’s civic culture you had best pay attention to the classroom of today.

In the name of her anti-government, pro-free-market ideology, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering rolling back a sweeping, landmark set of civil rights rules laid down by the Obama administration that pushed for an end to disparities in school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. Because, you know, protecting the least among us is “government overreach.”

To that end on Friday her staff took a meeting brokered in part by Mike Petrilli, the conservative president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. No surprise there, if a little side-eye at the notion of a mainline conservative lining up behind this one.

According to Petrilli’s description to a number of reporters, the meeting was mostly a “listening session,” with teachers and parents telling tales about how heavy-handed discipline edicts had forced two teachers to endure student brutality.

Former Edina teacher Debbie York was body-slammed by an elementary pupil and then disciplined for violating student data privacy laws by warning district parents about the child. John Ekblad sued St. Paul Public Schools after he suffered what he describes as a traumatic brain injury while trying to break up a lunchroom brawl at Central High School.

The cases are controversial. The purpose of this post is not to weigh in on either. Edina eventually settled with York, while a Ramsey County District Court dismissed Ekblad’s suit.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, whose coverage of race-equity issues in schools I have criticized as biased, noted that local teachers called on DeVos‘ staff. Minnesota Public Radio did the same. The Star Tribune took no note of the meeting whatsoever. Neither of the outlets that covered it noted that the cases were hardly cut-and-dry instances of a violent youngster brutalizing an innocent adult.

But worse, neither appears to have asked how two Minnesota teachers ended up as political cover for an effort to end systemic biases in discipline that contribute to nation-leading racial disparities. In St. Paul, Black students make up less than one-third of students, yet during the first quarter of the 2016-2017 school year, they accounted for 77 percent of all suspensions.

There’s a ton of backstory here. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers campaigned to oust the superintendent who pushed to keep as many students of color as possible out of the prison pipeline, campaigning to elect a board that made firing Valeria Silva one of its first acts. Reaction to a teacher’s profane, racist blog divided the community.

And Katherine Kersten penned one of her signature everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stories, blaming political correctness run amok, “equity proponents” and Barack Obama for a host of ills in an article published in City Journal.

(Despite the fact that it bills itself as “the nation’s premier urban-policy magazine, ‘the Bible of the new urbanism,’” I had to look City Journal up. Apparently, it is “the place where Rudy gets his ideas” and “the magazine that saved [New York] city.”)

“Donald Trump’s Department of Education won’t have to wait to see how this project has played out in the real world,” Kersten wrote. “The public schools of St. Paul, Minnesota, are ahead of the curve in the racial-equity crusade. The violence and chaos that racial-equity policies have produced there should sound alarms across the nation about what can be expected by pursuing this course.”

The article’s race-bait title: “No Thug Left Behind.”

Kersten’s not entirely accurate description of one issue: “Social-media comments can also endanger teachers’ jobs. On March 9, special-education teacher Theo Olson was placed on paid administrative leave after he, in two Facebook posts, criticized the administration’s lack of support for teachers. Olson made no mention of race. Nevertheless, Silva put him on leave after Black Lives Matter St. Paul threatened to ‘shut down’ Como Park High School unless Olson was fired.”

The more factual description: Olson maintained a blog where he told “fictionalized” stories about students with pseudonyms like DeVonte and Meng “whoring trains,” fighting and speaking in exaggerated ebonics. He described himself as a misanthrope. And he displayed student assignments, complete with kids’ actual names, along with his opinion that the kids in his class did not care.

Kersten followed up last month with another piece decrying efforts to address systemic inequities in schools, “Educational Excellence Threatened by Ideology in Edina Schools,” this time in the Center of the American Experiment’s own publication.

“Instead of giving Edina students the intellectual tools necessary to thrive in the 21st century,” Kersten writes, “Edina public school leaders are increasingly using limited school time to indoctrinate students in left-wing political orthodoxies.”

This might be the first time “Edina” and “left-wing” have appeared in the same sentence.

(Kersten also takes a swipe or two at Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, Tom Rademacher, who she terms a “liberal activist in the schools.” Rademacher can speak for himself quite eloquently, but I suspect he’d replace the term “liberal” with something more like “avenging anti-racist warrior for kids.”)

(Okay also, in 2006 she laid siege on my older child’s second-grade teacher, who she wanted fired for being gay.)

Education Week noted that the Center of the American Experiment – the far-right group where Kersten is a senior fellow – helped broker the meeting attended by York and Ekblad. Politico covered the meeting and the connection at some length in its Morning Education newsletter.

And Kersten, whose bios notes she was a Star Tribune columnist for 15 (recent) years, is hardly unknown to local media. Indeed, the paper ran a dramatically shortened version of her Edina piece. So it’s hard to imagine ignorance is a decent defense here.

One paragraph and a few links is all it would have taken to give readers enough context to decide how to think about the two teachers who want DeVos to scrap civil rights rules that were forcing schools to confront huge race disparities.

It’s a milli-step from there to a return to the narrative that poor black, brown and Native kids can’t learn because they and their families and communities are inherently disordered.

The truth is DeVos can rescind those rules. And could do it without the political cover laid by Kersten et. al. But Minnesotans who care about education deserve to have enough basic information to know how to think about this one.


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