Tag Archives: Minneapolis School Board

Race and Education. Some Thoughts, Post #pointergate

18 Nov

This is the first of two, maybe more, posts about education and the polarized debate surrounding it in Minneapolis. This post provides mostly background thoughts. Subsequent posts will deal more specifically with the recent Minneapolis School Board election.

A while back, right before the election, I said I would write up a fuller synopsis of the depressing Minneapolis School Board race and the broader issue of the polarization of the debate around education in Minneapolis. Then #pointergate happened. It wasn’t just that I was personally pretty preoccupied with that story and its impact on an organizational ally, Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that kept me from writing this post. I saw in the first few days of that big story how united Minneapolis—and in fact Minnesota and the country—became around an issue having so deeply to do with racial divisions in society, and it was inspiring. And, as several friends mentioned on Facebook, it was nice to see Minneapolis coming together after the bitter divisions that the school board race surfaced (some might say caused, but I chose that word purposefully).

And so writing about difficult issues at a time of unity feels a little like knowingly taking on the role of Debbie Downer. Pointergate has made me think more deeply about the issue of education and the racial divisions of both our education system and the divisions caused by the proposed solutions to fix those problems. These posts are my sometimes sprawling thoughts on the issue of education in Minneapolis, why I think it has become so divisive, and how getting over our societal inability to deal openly with the issue of race is key to us moving forward collectively.

Naming race. This is my point of departure for connecting the two topics of pointergate and Minneapolis schools. What was so gratifying to many who fight for racial justice was the way in which a broad swath of the public immediately saw the story for what it was, the worst kind of race baiting. By blurring Navell Gordon’s face and merely identifying him as a convicted felon, erasing all context of what he and the Mayor were actually doing that day (getting out the vote in low income neighborhoods), KSTP made Gordon into the anonymous Scary Black Man, and people got that. In a state where it often feels exhaustingly difficult to discuss race, this remains amazing to me and it gives me hope. So often we are caught in the US in “OJ moments,” where the media story is about how differently different groups see the same situation. The universal condemnation of pointergate has been truly edifying on that point.

If you followed KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ twitter meltdown on the first night of the broadcast saw that his defense was simple: I didn’t mention race! You guys are the ones bringing race up! It’s a particularly facile suggestion, that unless one actually mentions race then surely something isn’t about that. Kolls’ impulse, however, is a caricature of a real problem, an impulse to not mention race, to allow it to be subtext and not dealt and talked about openly. This seems especially true in Minnesota, where the mere mention of race seems, well, impolite.

Race and Education, Minneapolis and Everywhere

Very recent coverage of an issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools highlights, to my mind, the challenges and necessity of engaging deeply with race when it comes to education. On this week’s edition of the Wrong About Everything podcast, conservative Mike Franklin and I tussled over the recently announced suspensions policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The policy, which was immediately misrepresented and ridiculed as schools now need “permission” to suspend black and Latino students, actually states that the district will review, after the fact, the suspensions of students of color as a way of responding to an issue that is not unique to Minneapolis: the insanely disproportionate rates at which students of color, especially young black men, are suspended in public schools vis a vis their white counterparts. There are horror stories of children as young as pre-k receiving suspensions as discipline, even as studies show what seems so obvious: keeping kids from school does not help them learn. The less bombastic criticisms of the policy suggest there is a constitutional issue with only reviewing the suspensions of kids of color, made by Franklin on WAE and attorney Tom Corbett in the Star Tribune, suggest the policy won’t pass constitutional muster once the first white or Asian kid who gets suspended sues the district alleging her/his suspension is discriminatory because it wasn’t reviewed.

On the podcast Franklin suggests reviewing all suspensions, something I don’t disagree with but that I also think doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. His and others’ reaction seems to fundamentally rest on a discomfort with using race in the analysis at all. I’m left wondering, how are we to deal with issues of inequity and discrimination, if we do not look at race? And to Franklin’s credit, he does acknowledge that there actually does seem to be a problem with the suspensions of kids of color in MPS. I’m just not clear he or any other conservative would be satisfied with any proposed solution because it would necessarily require at some point looking at the race of students. (If you want to hear an in-depth, at times heart-wrenching account of the issue and its ramifications, listen to this episode of This American Life. It’s stunning.)

While I don’t pretend to have the perfect solution for this particular issue, the point I want to underscore is a simple one: discipline is just one of the many issues we cannot deal with if we try to do so without talking about race. We must deal openly with the fact that white kids and kids of color have fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in Minneapolis Public Schools and in Minnesota generally. That is the problem before us.

Why Do I Care?

People have asked me why education is an issue I have an opinion about. Some folks in the teachers’ union in Minneapolis have asked in a rather pointed way – this is our issue, why do you care? It’s a fair question I’m happy to answer because by some of the measures we traditionally define the issue, I don’t fit the bill of someone who should care about our schools. First, I have no kids (that’s best for everyone involved). Second, I’m the president of a union of janitors and security officers in the private sector. With the exception of security officers who work in Saint Paul Public Schools, SEIU Local 26 does not represent educators or support workers in schools.

So why do I care? The first reason is personal. Education opened doors for me that were not available to my parents, which is why they insisted that all of their children study and study hard. My siblings and I are the first generation of college graduates in our family, and my parents are very proud of that fact. And how did I, a kid from a family of very modest means, get a fancy Ivy League college education? First, a lot of debt that I will probably still be paying into retirement. But debt and scholarships is how I paid for it once I got in, and I got into a school like Yale because I was lucky enough to be educated in US public school system that succeeds where others do not, a school system where kids of color excel and where achievement and opportunity gaps are not the mammoth problem they are for here in Minnesota. My father was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, and so my entire schooling happened in Department of Defense Schools, first in Germany and then on a military base in Puerto Rico. Like so many who enter the volunteer army, my parents did so escaping poverty in the early 1960s. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam in combat. We were always very aware that the sacrifices our parents made they made so that we would have opportunities they did not.

The second reason I care is indeed professional. SEIU Local 26 is a union of janitors, security officers and window cleaners. The largest group, the janitorial division, is made up of members who come from all over the world. We have a fairly young membership. If you come to one of our member meetings, you will see small children running around; there is a lot of joy in the room. And when, over the years, I have asked members why they decided to make the difficult decision to come to a country whose language and culture is different from theirs, I most often hear my parents’ voices in theirs: I came to make a better life for my kids. For the members of Local 26, the “achievement gap” is not an abstract concept. Those are our kids.

In the next post, I will go more deeply into the polarized debate around education in Minneapolis and how an analysis of race, where we all challenge ourselves, is essential to solving the issues before us.

Minneapolis School Board Race. Some Thoughts Before You Vote.

3 Nov

In Minneapolis this year, the race for the at-large school board seats has become one of the nastiest and divisive elections in recent memory. Trying to carve not even a middle path in this fight between the union and reformers, let alone a conversation, seems impossible, especially during the heightened tensions of an election. I’ll have a much longer post-mortem after election that will go into detail my frustrations with certain segments of both the reform and union crowds, but here I’ll just stick to my pre-election day thoughts that I hope some Minneapolis voters will find useful.

Let me begin by acknowledging that everyone running is seeking what is essentially a volunteer job, paying around ten thousand dollars a year (insane when you consider they manage a budget of almost 800 million dollars). It is also a thankless job with a ton of work, very little if any staff support, and the job description consists of trying to chart a way forward for kids in the midst of lots of adults yelling at you that you are not doing your job right. Kudos to all willing to put up with the current electoral vitriol they are sustaining only to win and accept that job.

Iris Strib Editorial EndorsementAnyone who knows me knows I am not unbiased in this race. Iris Altamirano is not only SEIU-endorsed, she is a good friend and someone who worked as political director and internal organizing lead at Local 26. She has been on strike lines, is extremely smart, and her story is the one of so many Minneapolis Public Schools students. There are three viable campaigns for two at-large spots: Altamirano, Don Samuels, and Rebecca Gagnon. Ira Jourdain is also vying for a spot, but his campaign has been lackluster, though he has a base of support in the hardcore left of the teachers’ union. Samuels is the darling of education reformers and Gagnon the darling of the mainstream of labor and the teachers’ union. Altamirano’s is the only campaign that has actively sought to build a conversation across groups and differences of opinion. That is what we need in a new school board – as she says, a new conversation, led by people willing to challenge all sides to do better and focus on kids.

Minneapolis kids are in crisis, especially kids of color. We have the greatest racial disparities in outcomes in the entire United States. Let that sink in. Worse than Mississippi, worse than Alabama, worse than Texas, where Iris Altamirano grew up.

Iris knows the plight of Minneapolis kids; she too was expected not to succeed. She is the proud daughter of a janitor who worked at her high school. When the superintendent of that school found out that Iris had been accepted to Cornell University, he did not celebrate her as the first student of any race to be accepted to an Ivy League from his district. No, he pulled her mother aside in the hall she cleaned every day and asked her, “Why your daughter?” Iris’s mom replied in her accented English, “Why not my daughter?” Iris and her mom cracked the code. They figured out a way for her to be successful in a system stacked against her. She has since then dedicated her life to changing that system. She will be the first Latina elected to the School Board and the only member with a direct connection to the largest community of immigrants in the city.

If Samuels and Gagnon get elected together, the school board will be bitterly divided, polarized—and the polarized debate has helped no one, especially kids. (More on that in the post-mortem).

DFL-endorsed Altamirano came in a strong third in the primary, but there are only two spots open on the board, and she is clearly the underdog. She is up against former City Council Member Samuels, who last year ran for mayor and won the highest number of second third choice votes and support across the city. He had a network of donors ready to go and the passionate support of some key stakeholders, including former Mayor Rybak. As soon as he announced, electing Samuels became the top priority of the “reform” crowd.

Then you have the incumbent, Gagnon, for whom the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation re-wrote the rules of endorsement in order to support her, choosing for the first time not to screen candidates and instead support the “DFL ticket.” That meant labor could put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the DFL while she could say she is not beholden to labor. (That is literally why it happened; it’s how she wanted it). It is abundantly clear that, if the rules of the game are re-written to fit one person, that person is your priority. Having been a strong supporter of labor, especially the teachers, on the board, re-electing Gagnon is the top priority of most the “union” crowd.

Coming out of the gate, Altamirano was neither group’s top priority. Unlike Gagnon, she is not wealthy enough to feed her campaign with thousands of dollars. Unlike Samuels, she is not known citywide. Although she comes out of the labor movement, organized strike lines and helped thousands of workers in the Twin Cities make their jobs better, no one has rewritten any rules to support her. The DFL endorsement was valuable; that and Altamirano’s tireless work got her a decent close third in the primary. Third place doesn’t get you on the school board.

Post-primary Altamirano continued a strategy of talking to everyone and began gaining their support. Reformers who donated to her did not give in as high quantities as they did to Samuels, and although she does not agree with them on all issues, they have seen in her someone who will at least listen and talk. Likewise, teachers and other union folks have invested in her campaign. She has run on her organizing experience, even when many in labor have attacked her viciously (and I do mean viciously) simply because she does not believe that being pro-labor means you have to close off communication with everyone else and be open to ideas wherever they come from.

Her work to engage people across groups has garnered her high praise. Just today, the 2014 Educator of the Year, Tom Rademacher, endorsed Iris, writing: “The conversation needs to change. I respect Iris Altamirano for her willingness to talk to everyone working to make schools better. Iris seems to understand that our biggest problems need allies more than they need enemies, and has refused to take the easy way out of picking a side in an argument and scoring easy points attacking others. Again and again, she has refocused the conversation through this campaign on finding solutions and staying centered on our students. She has my vote for Minneapolis School Board.”

In a surprise to the establishment, newcomer Altamirano also received the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Are there also people supporting her candidacy financially—principally through independent expenditures that she legally has no control over—who progressives disagree with on a whole host of issues? Absolutely. Why should you support her anyway? Because, in a world where money flows into elections to absurd degrees, Altamirano has been upfront about the fact that she is talking to everyone. If any of her critics who also cannot afford to self-finance their campaigns would care to run for office in the current campaign finance climate, I look forward to watch their learning curve.

In sum, whoever of the other two frontrunners you like, Samuels or Gagnon, Altamirano should be your other choice. If you want someone who will lead a new conversation, vote for Iris. If you are passionate about Rebecca Gagnon, you should also support Iris. If you are passionate for Don Samuels, you should also support Iris.

This race has been hard on everyone involved. Both the reform and the union side have engaged in tactics I find deplorable (more on that later). If the each group’s work gets Gagnon and Samuels elected, each will have elected the candidate they really wanted and the opponent each deserves. Minneapolis will have the most divided and divisive school board in memory, and we will have a much more difficult time healing from this election and focusing on kids.