Silver lining by Šarūnas Burdulis
We do not yet know who will serve as Secretary of Education in Donald Trump’s administration, but the rumor mill is spinning with names sure to cause consternation for public school proponents everywhere.
CNN’s shortlist of candidates for the top federal education job includes infamous education reform advocate Michelle Rhee, along with controversial New York City charter school magnate Eva Moskowitz. Former Trump rival Ben Carson was also briefly on this list. Progressive groups have argued that Carson should not be considered for the job partly because he has “railed against the theory of evolution” and categorized the push for LGBT rights as a “Marxist plot.”
But in Minnesota, education activists have reason to feel hopeful.
In late October, a judge dismissed a case brought against Minnesota’s teacher tenure and seniority layoff rules, saying the suit had “failed to establish a link between low academic achievement and the due process provided by the tenure laws.” The suit was part of former journalist Campbell Brown’s attempts, through a mysteriously funded group called Partnership for Educational Justice, to launch campaigns against teacher tenure rules in several states. Called a “conservative legal group” by the online watchdog outlet, Media Matters, the Partnership is described as part of an “education reform echo chamber,” where a small group of very wealthy funders—including Brown—continually promote a pro-business, pro-privatization agenda.
In 2014, Brown’s Partnership group filed a lawsuit against things such as “quality-blind teacher layoffs” in New York. That suit remains unresolved. (Reinforcing claims of an education reform echo chamber, Brown is also the money and vision behind an online education news site, the 74million.org, that reports on the cases the Partnership group brings forth.)
In April, 2016, the Partnership spread its campaign to Minnesota, claiming that the state’s tenure laws provide teachers with “lifetime job protection after only three years,” and that such protections deny students equal access to “highly effective” teachers. The lawsuit collapsed under its own weight, as state education officials immediately pushed back on the idea that tenure means teachers can’t be fired (they can, but with due process protections in place).
Another sticking point? Minnesota, like many states, is grappling with a serious teacher shortage, undercutting the lawsuit’s claim that the most “effective” teachers are continually being given pink slips. Further, the state of Minnesota’s motion to dismiss the case, filed in July, 2016, noted that the plaintiffs failed to show that eliminating tenure would somehow give rise to an exceptional education system. How do we know this? Just look at Minnesota’s charter schools, the motion advised. Most teachers working in charter schools are non-unionized, and lack tenure, yet charters are “disproportionately represented” among Minnesota’s lowest performing schools. Jesse Stewart, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, promised an appeal.
Just days after the lawsuit was dismissed, the November 8 election took place. Four seats were open on the Minneapolis school board, and a slate of union-endorsed candidates pushed through to victory, beating back two incumbents. One of the incumbents, Josh Reimnitz, is a Teach for America alum who was first elected to the city’s school board in 2012, riding a wave of outside reform money. Back then, Reimnitz’s campaign was buoyed by close to $40,000 in donations. By 2014, that amount seemed like it came from a kid’s piggy bank fund, as local education reform interests raised over $275,000 in campaign funds from sources such as former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
The outside cash didn’t flow into Minneapolis this time, perhaps because the 2014 deluge bought mixed results for reformers. Still, in a climate of anti-tenure lawsuits and calls for turning city school districts into New Orleans-style “recovery” zones, the fact that four union—and Democrat—backed candidates prevailed is a development worth taking comfort in. Additionally, a suburban Minneapolis Republican state legislator, David Hann, lost his seat. In 2015, Hann floated the idea that the Minneapolis schools—with or without community input—should be broken into six separate districts, free of state mandates. In a poetic turn, Hann’s senate seat will now be filled by Democrat Steve Cwodzinski, a retired high school civics teacher.
On November 8, Minneapolis voters also overwhelmingly approved a referendum that equals 13 percent of the Minneapolis Public Schools operating budget. Without the referendum, the district would have been forced to operate on a threadbare shoestring. With the referendum, it can continue to meet the needs—in a time of shrinking state-level funding—of over 36,000 students from a constantly expanding rainbow of backgrounds. There are the Trump-dreaded refugees and immigrants, from Somalia, Karen, Mexico, and points in between, as well as white, middle class kids who only speak English, and a historic, predominantly African-American high school, North High, that almost closed in 2010 but is thriving today.
Close to 20 percent of the district’s students qualify for special education services. Over 60 percent of them live in poverty, according to federal guidelines. In July, a Minnesota court declined to dismiss a desegregation lawsuit that alleges, in part, that school choice schemes have led to separate and unequal schools throughout the state. How a Trump administration will affect these deep-seated issues is not clear. For now, pro-public school activists in Minnesota have reason to feel victorious.
Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.