Hard Truths About the Threats to Minneapolis’ Teachers of Color and How to Protect Them


Do you remember that ugly meme that went around a few weeks back? The one that attempted to smear several Minneapolis Public Schools administrators for their “associations” with KIPP schools, Teach for America, Minnesota Comeback and my own kid’s scrappy little standalone school?

There was one administrator one there who for good reason is embroiled in scandal: The district’s enrollment chief, who runs a side consultancy that steers families – presumably wealthy ones – to private schools and equips them to justify this decision to critics. He didn’t “associate” with the rest, but you’d never know it from the lines and arrows and conspiratorial language on the meme.

(It’s tempting to veer off on a rant questioning whether we remember other dark eras of U.S. history when we fired people – and worse – because of “associations.” But I am working up to a point and I am determined to make it.)

One of the people eviscerated by the meme was MPS Human Resources Chief, Maggie Sullivan, whose “association” is her service on the leadership council of the education advocacy group Minnesota Comeback. Among other things, Comeback has funded nine district initiatives, several of them in Sullivan’s sphere.

And a couple of them touted as victories by, or funded at the behest of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers – which drew up and circulated the meme: The “Grow Your Own” program that’s one of the most promising mechanisms for diversifying the ranks of the district’s teachers; a pilot studying the retention of teachers of color and the last referendum campaign.

So why hate on Sullivan – particularly if she’s bringing home the bacon? She’s not even a veteran of any of the education reform efforts the meme associated its other targets with. Before MPS, she worked for Pittsburgh Public Schools and before that for the Boys and Girls Club.

On Tuesday, Sullivan presented the Minneapolis School Board with the results of an equity and diversity impact assessment of HR policies and practices that affect recruitment, hiring and retention. No surprise, the presentation led with the yawning disconnect between the racial composition of the student body and the teacher corps. Continue reading

Parkland Strong: Let’s Walk Out With Our Kids, March Behind Them, And Shut Up About Adult Agendas

This afternoon my son called home from college. He went straight past hello, to “There’s a crisis on campus.”

My heart had filled with ice water and I was halfway to my knees in the nanosecond before he cranked out the rest of the sentence: “There’s an ice storm coming and everything’s going to shut down.”

In that instant where I imagined my toe-headed baby was waiting for the shooting to stop, all I could see was the scrim of blond curls that bobbed along on his toddler explorations. Not even his face, just that gold halo.

How many families last week answered calls and texts that didn’t resolve with the closure of the dining hall? (Including, in a shattering piece of journalism, a family that at first feared the Broward County Sheriff’s Department was calling about their child, only to have that replaced with the horror that in fact the call was about shooter Nik Cruz, who they had taken in at their son’s request.)

When my firstborn came home from kindergarten and told me his class had learned what to do if he was at a friend’s house and there were guns, I broke a little inside.

When I got a robo-call the next year reporting that a child had brought a gun to school and carried it into the lunchroom, I broke a little more.

The robo-call I got when a former student brought rifles – plural — to middle school? Broke, broke, broke. Continue reading

Item World: The St. Paul Teachers Contract Settlement Edition


While we wait to find out what’s in the proposed contract settlement between St. Paul Public Schools and its teachers announced Monday morning, let’s visit about a few associated items, shall we?


Does anybody remember the coup de gras leaders of the current St. Paul School Board delivered to former Superintendent Valeria Silva? Recruited, funded and swept to electoral victory by the teachers’ union, the first thing they did upon taking office two years ago was to settle the last contract talks by granting raises of 2 percent in each of the next two years, to the tune of $21 million. On top of the contract’s automatic “step and lane” increases, which cost an additional 2 percent to 4 percent a year.

This of course exacerbated the district’s shortfall, which the new board majority believed could be made by up by cutting fat at the administrative level. They didn’t like the budget Silva presented, sent her back to do it their way and when the river of superfluous money failed to appear volunteered to buy out her contract. They didn’t have cause to let her go, so the cost of this maneuver approached $1 million.

And so how bitter is the irony that in recent weeks these same relative board newcomers have found themselves pleading publicly that there is no money? And that their 2016 decision in fact compounded the size of the shortfall today? Continue reading

It Ain’t About the Money

Could This Year’s Twin Cities Teacher Contract Talks Have More to Do With the Unions’ Survival Than With Steps and Lanes?


Have you read the sundry proposals and counterproposals on the table in the noisy and contentious teacher contract negotiations underway in Minneapolis and St. Paul? I have, and there are some doozies in there.

Like a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers proposal to require the district to ascertain whether anything it buys – carpeting, toilet paper, light bulbs – contains any element produced by a company with a relationship to the Koch brothers.

I mean, I don’t like the Koch brothers either, but this strikes me as absurd. Even if it didn’t run counter to laws and policies requiring competitive bids, how would Minneapolis Public Schools implement it? And how much, in a year where there’s a $33 million deficit, would it cost to start screening products to find out who produced their various components?

I mean, some of the items on the list attached to the proposals are enzymes.

I’m going to scooch out on a skinny, skinny limb here for a second and venture that the ugly name-calling, the pie-in-the-sky demands and the political theater aren’t about the money.

There isn’t any. Whether there should be is a political question rightly to be debated, but the reality is the districts don’t have it to give. Both have labor-friendly boards – not to mention board members who work for local unions or did before their elections — that presumably would love nothing more than to float all boats. Continue reading

The Promised Kinder, Gentler Teacher Contract Talks Have Devolved Into Union Mud-Slinging

You know who is frequently the most frightened person in the room? The bully.

That doesn’t justify or excuse their behavior, but it is a lens that can help explain why someone is willing to expend so much energy trying to cause another person pain or shame.

The leadership of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has spent a lot of energy over the last couple of months calling names and lobbing insults at Minneapolis Public Schools leaders, with whom they are attempting to negotiate a new contract.

They call the strategy they are using this year – and I am not making this up — “Common Sense Bargaining for the Common Good.” Just what is good or common-sense about bullying the person across the negotiating table?

Tuesday the federation put the illustration atop this post up on its Facebook page. In addition to being the exact opposite of a kinder, gentler negotiating strategy it’s riddled with errors, attempts to smear a number of reputable district leaders by lumping them in with one who is the object of a current scandal that’s completely unrelated to the “privatization” conspiracy theory being fanned here, and does not actually accuse any of the leaders of anything other than having laudable resumes. Continue reading

Declining District Enrollment? Here’s a No-Brainer: Ask Why Families Left — And Listen When They Answer

Do you want to know what happens when you pull your child out of Minneapolis Public Schools?

Nothing. That’s what happens.

No first-week phone call from the school office or the enrollment center. No social worker wondering if things are okay. Not so much as a multiple-choice survey asking what prompted you to leave.

The bus cards continue to come. And good luck stopping the robo-calls, which are hardwired to survive death and taxes.

No, the vacuum you’re left with is to be filled only by your imagination. Which, if your departure involved any degree of tension between family and school, is likely to be a pretty shamey blamey place.

I’ve experienced this and it’s remarkable. No one in any position of power says, What could we do to change this situation for the better?

To be clear, this isn’t just my problem. Over the years I’ve spent as an education reporter I’ve heard, over and over, what is at its core a remarkably similar story. In it, a child whose needs are big, messy or inconvenient is accused of failing to fit the profile of the student a school is equipped to serve.

I raise it now because there has been a lot of hand-wringing in these twin towns of late over the number of students leaving traditional district schools for what their families hope are greener pastures. And a lot of the talk about this is phrased, essentially, as a process wherein an interloper steals kids and the per-pupil tuition dollars allotted to meeting their needs from Minneapolis and St. Paul schools.

Kids leaving translates to dollars lost. There’s an urgent desire to get those dollars back. But seemingly zero interest in the reasons for the departure. Continue reading

The More Things Change: How the First Version of Minnesota’s Desegregation Lawsuit Left Out Families

The other day Minnesota’s Supreme Court entertained oral arguments in Cruz-Guzman vs. State of Minnesota, a lawsuit that, no matter what happens next, could have sweeping implications. If the case is allowed to proceed to trial, under the guise of integrating schools it could eliminate parental choice and strike a potentially fatal blow to schools that are delivering terrific results for impoverished black and brown kids.

If the case is dismissed on the grounds advanced by the state, it could set a precedent that would stop Minnesota courts from upholding the state constitution’s education clause, which guarantees all children adequate schooling.

I watched the arguments online, feeling very déjà vu all over again the whole time. It’s a re-do – complete with many of the same characters and subplots – of the first serious education story I wrote, back in 2000: “Magic Bus: The NAACP’s education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?”

Reader, when I dusted off that story, I was shocked. My own firstborn was a few months old and the big meaty issues at stake were pretty abstract to me. Like most white liberals, I grew up believing that I understood why and how separate is inherently unequal.

But the thing that hit me full-bore upon rereading my piece was the same as then. The story’s protagonist, a single black mother by the name of Evelyn Eubanks, was told at every turn, by white people, that their solutions were superior to what she was actually asking for for her babies. She was angry at being used as the public face of an effort that resulted in a settlement she didn’t want that was brokered in rooms where she wasn’t welcome. Continue reading

In Which a Student Schools the Adults on Affirming LGBT Kids

Let’s compare and contrast, shall we?

Item No. 1: A survey of educator political beliefs conducted by the Education Week Research Center includes questions about attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity. The results suggest that it’s pot luck whether LGBT students and educators will land in affirming classrooms.

Item No. 2: An opinion piece penned by a Greater Minnesota high school freshman who neatly and persuasively makes the case that anti-bullying policies aren’t likely to work if the demographic groups most likely to be targeted for harassment aren’t specifically named.

“I’ve seen countless anti-bullying campaigns in schools, all featuring the same character,” Grand Rapids student Hannah Erickson writes in a blog post for the education advocacy group EdAllies. “The thin, straight, white student who’s being picked on for no reason. The insults are predictable: ‘You’re a loser!’ ‘Get lost, freak!’”

She goes on to explain why this is problematic. A slice:

“Educators are neglecting to tell us that being bullied for an aspect of our identity, whether it’s race, sexuality, religion, or something else, isn’t our fault. They’re also neglecting to educate us about our privileges, and how treating other students differently because of aspects of their identity is not only hurtful, but may actually violate those students’ civil rights.”

I say we pass a hat to send Erickson on a speaking tour. While she’s visiting schools, she can dispel adult fears that they are being asked to talk to kids about sex. Continue reading

Why the Schools Contract Talks ‘Wag The Dog’ Strategy is Bad For Minneapolis Kids

Above: A papier-mache Coleman Young; much lighter and manageable than the late Detroit mayor.


One of the more formative experiences I had as a young reporter was a marathon week of experiences put together by Wayne State University for new Detroit residents. The one on my mind today is a closed-door session we had with the top deputies to Detroit’s Afrocentric mayor, Coleman Young, and L. Brooks Patterson, the top executive of wealthy suburban Oakland County.

The two cheerfully fielded questions about how effective demonizing one another was in terms of securing their respective political bases. Far from denying it, they spooled out examples. The concept wasn’t entirely new to me, but I was agog nonetheless.

(Self-indulgent digression: A person could not make up the profane stuff Young was given to. The name plate on his desk famously read, “MFIC,” for motherfucker in charge. His pet name for Ronald Reagan was Pruneface. There was even a little red book titled, Mao Zedong-style, “The Quotations of Mayor Coleman Young.”)

I can’t see the cartoons the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is circulating underscoring the positions proposals they’ve taken in the current contract talks with Minneapolis Public Schools without thinking of the Detroit frenemies. I mean, ludicrous though it is, the comic-book visage of Superintendent Ed Graff denying teachers toilet breaks has to be galvanizing the base.

MPS has existed since 1878. Clearly people have figured out how to pee during the school day. And yet how awful does it make leadership look when they quite appropriately refuse to bargain bathroom breaks into the contract? Continue reading

Another Problematic Chapter in the Star Tribune’s North High “Cinderella Story”


I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar not a one of you has been following the tempest involving two very different stories put out by Washington, D.C.’s National Public Radio affiliate, WAMU, about Ballou High School. The first story, released in June, reported that for the first time 100 percent of the high-poverty school’s graduates had been accepted to four-year colleges.

A second, Nov. 28 story, “What Really Happened At The School Where Every Graduate Got Into College,” revealed that upwards of half of those Ballou grads missed three months or more of school their senior year. Dozens missed too much school to earn passing grades. Teachers told reporters few could read.

“An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate,” the second story reported. “In June, 164 students received diplomas.”

A journalist named Alexander Russo serves as the media watchdog for the education press corps, an endeavor you can easily track by signing up for his weekly column, The Grade. Almost immediately upon the second story’s publication, Russo began pointing out on social media that WAMU had not addressed the obvious: That its first story was badly flawed. Continue reading