What Conor Williams didn't see in Minneapolis
Getting Minnesota charter school history wrong, again.
NOTE: This is from a talk given at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. It is a fairly long discourse on the history and current state of the charter school movement in Minnesota and the country.
A few months back there appeared in the New York Times a splashy op-ed lauding a local high-flying charter school chain called Hiawatha Academies, written by a prominent national education reformer. The author, Conor Williams, wrote that Hiawatha Academy runs schools that are “...full of progressive educators helping children of color from low-income families succeed.”
Success is a relative word, as Williams made clear; in this context he meant better student test scores than students in the same demographic throughout the state. If Williams had written this a few years ago he would have been right in one respect: In a few of those years Hiawatha test scores exceeded state overall averages. This was especially intriguing because Hiawatha is over 90% Hispanic/Latino. But this story, like so many education reform stories, was not what it seemed. In recent years Hiawatha's test scores have dropped steadily back down to earth, so that now they're less than half of the state averages. For some reason national, and especially local media aren't interested in that now.
If on his trip to Minneapolis correspondent Williams had wandered out the front door of Hiawatha Academy and sauntered just four blocks north he would have come across El Colegio, another segregated charter school that is 100% Hispanic / Latino. El Colegio has had test score proficiencies ranging near zero for the past five years, including zero percent math proficiency in 2016 and zero percent reading proficiency in 2017. Yet it is a favorite of local philanthropies.
And so it goes with charter schools in the Twin Cities where an archipelago of deliberately segregated charter schools are being built in areas of concentrated racial poverty, all funded by a few local and national philanthropies, including the Minneapolis Foundation and the Walmart heirs at the Walton Family Foundation. And unlike Hiawatha, more than a few of these radically segregated schools have had test score proficiencies in the zero to 10% range for half a dozen years or more. These are places that people like Williams seldom mention. Most charter schools perform roughly the same as comparable public schools on standardized tests. Yes, there are a few charter schools that do marginally better on standardized test scores than their statewide cohort. But they are the exception, not the rule.
So how did we get to the point where reporting on education is so far divorced from reality? How did we end up with segregated charter schools and high-stakes testing? How did we get to a point where teachers are rated on how well their students do on standardized tests? How did we get to a point where teachers are so demoralized that veterans are leaving the field in droves, and where young people increasingly don't want to go into the field? How did we get to the point where democracy is being subverted both by plutocrats controlling national educational policy and the proliferation of publicly-funded but privately controlled charter schools? How did we get to the point where Authoritarianism is being advanced by educational pedagogies relying on obedience and reverence?
A little history is in order. Like so many ailments in our society today the sorry state of national educational policy is unsurprisingly rooted in right wing ideology, racism, and authoritarianism. The notion of “school choice” - so embraced by even beloved local Democrats like RT Rybak – was initially Southern racists' response to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed 'separate but equal' public services – including segregated schools.
The order to desegregate public education motivated Southern racist authoritarians to search for new ways to maintain their dominance and racial apartheid. After first trying pupil-assignment schemes to maintain segregation they eventually implemented educational "freedom of choice" and public support for private whites-only schools as a way to get around the court's order, a notion immediately endorsed by Chicago School free-market extremist Milton Friedman.
Racists saw “school choice” as a way to have the government pay for their own bigotry, and Friedman saw it both as an opportunity to subject a large pot of public spending – almost $1 trillion yearly today - to private profit, and to decimate teachers unions. It's this money that uber capitalists told journalist Jonathan Kozol in 2007 was the “big enchilada” of untapped money, and they promised to get their hands on it the way they had gotten hold of other public services in the US.
Nothing much really happened in the school choice movement after the courts successfully struck down school segregation policies in the 1960s. That era ended in 1983 when Ronald Reagan's education department published the still-cited “Nation at Risk” report that warned that the US would soon fall behind other countries because our public education system was not up to the task of educating a modern populace.
Nation at Risk still echos in the public consciousness today; indeed its warnings have been internalized into education discourse. Its findings were used in the arguments to establish charter schools in Minnesota.
But there was something wrong with Nation at Risk. The report took one truth – that college admission test scores were declining – and took it as a sign that our actual educational system was declining. But that wasn't true! College admission test scores were declining because our colleges had become more democratic, and more students of lower socio-economic states were both taking the tests and getting into college! So Nation at Risk took a good thing – higher education was becoming more democratized – and turned it into a bad thing – our education system is failing!
As Nation at Risk turned up the heat on American schools three big developments in education policy were taking shape. The first was a study commissioned by president George HW Bush. He had believed the propaganda surrounding the Nation at Risk report, and he asked the Sandia National Laboratory to look into the issue – he wanted to know what could be done. The second was that school choicers, enabled by Nation At Risk – began getting school voucher measures on ballots in some big states, including California. The third, perhaps the least understood, was a campaign begun by our own Minneapolis Foundation to create a school choice experiment in Minnesota, at first called “outcome based schools,” but later named “charter schools”.
The first of these three big things happening in the late 80s and early 90s was the so-called Sandia Report - commissioned by George Bush and state governors in 1989 to investigate the state of public education. The report was finished and filed in 1991, and quickly suppressed because it showed that Nation At Risk was wrong, perhaps deliberately so, and that educational achievement levels in the US were among the highest in the world, and that attainment had been slowly and steadily improving since the 1960s. The Sandia Report also ominously warned that political attacks on teachers could potentially have a devastating effect on the profession. For its honesty the Sandia researchers had the release of their report delayed by two years, and then it was only roguely published by the Phi Delta Kappan in 1993. For its suppression, Project Censored named the report it's third most censored report for 1995. Looking back, it now appears that modern education reformers, to their everlasting shame, took Sandia not as a cautionary tale but instead as a blueprint.
The second big change in the late 80s and early 90s was the school choicers turning to school vouchers - the old Milton Friedman idea. In this school choice construct parents would be given money by the state – a voucher - and they could spend it on whatever school they wanted. What could go wrong?
But the free marketeers had a very specific problem: most state constitutions prohibited the spending of public money on sectarian schools. So they took vouchers to the ballot box in the early 1990s – and lost by large margins every time. The public just doesn't like vouchers, no matter the deep pockets of its advocates. School choice would have to wait for a new vehicle.
That vehicle would be the third, and most consequential, thing happening in education policy in the period – the passage of the nation's first charter school law in 1991 in St. Paul. Though the landmark law authorized only a limited experiment in chartering, promises were made and laws changed over the years to both loosen the reigns on charter schools and increase their numbers. Reformers succeeded on both accounts, and, combined with tens of millions of dollars from local and national philanthropies, and support from both major political parties, have pretty much had their way in Minnesota, with negative consequences for democracy and equality.
Charter schools' four original sins
The birth of charter schools was accompanied by the four original sins of the movement. The first and most obvious is that charter schools are undemocratic. Charters take public money without public accountability. If a charter school wants it can plop itself down right next to a regular public school and there's nothing the local elected district can do to stop it. If you don't like what your public school district is doing you can contact your elected representative, or run for office yourself. If you don't like the local charter school – tough luck – you can take it or leave it. That's the kind of choice on offer.
The second original sin with charter schools is their ceaseless experiments with the lives of children. Proponents promised that charter schools would be both high-performing and experimental. At the time only the state's teacher's union pointed out that school children would be treated like guinea pigs in an unholy experiment. Ember Reichgott Junge, author of that first charter law went out of her way to diss those educators in her 2012 memoir Zero Chance of Passage. And it was flatly untrue that regular public schools and districts couldn't and didn't try new things. Minnesota has a long history of educational experiments, including magnet schools, special purpose schools and individualized instruction.
But back to the notion of charter schools being simultaneously high-performing and experimental. In real experiments there are failures. Poorly designed experiments can fail and provide no new knowledge. Charters have the character of an experiment, but they don't employ the knowledge, history and logic that goes into legitimate experiments. Failures in the charter sector therefore are for the most part products of stupidity, hubris or corruption. They are nonetheless failures, and many children suffer because of them.
Charter schools in Minnesota are constantly opening and closing, with all the attendant chaos this creates for everyone involved. There's actually a phrase for this, it's called school churn. Churn used to be considered a bad thing in education. After all, if there's one thing we know about at-risk children is that stability is crucial. Attending a school that closes in the middle of the school year, or a week before the school year starts is obviously not good for any child.
At first charter advocates were chagrined by school churn – and promised they would fix this unhealthy process. Eventually they were forced to make lemonade out of lemons: Beginning in about 2010 the charter school movement actually embraced school churn. In 2011 Al Fan, the head of Minnesota Comeback, told the St Paul Pioneer Press that “school churn” was “an important strategy in addressing” the achievement gap in Minnesota. So Minnesota children will permanently be guinea pigs in the charter school experiment.
The reason for charter school failures is quite simple: There is no pedagogy, or overarching strategy on why charter schools would be superior to regular public schools. The supposed reason for their superiority lies in their being schools of choice, and their freedom to avoid that nasty regulation that democratic accountability requires. If people have to consciously choose them, so the theory goes, they will have to be better. This, again, turns out in the event to not have been the case, as was the earlier claim by advocates that the mere presence of charter competition would improve public schools.
School choice is thus an ideology – not a strategy of education or of learning. This is the reason that two and a half decades of failure have not sunk the school choice movement. It is not about educating children, or even better test scores; it is about ideology, destroying unions, and exposing money spent on public education to private profit.
We know this despite the fact that reformers couch their appeals in the righteous certainty emblematic of authoritarians. They claim they are only doing it for the under-served children of color and of poverty. But in private, and to elite audiences, architects of the charter movement admit that the purpose of their movement lay in the principle of having publicly paid services not delivered by government entities (privatization), or “removing the government monopoly” of delivering public education. The ideology of choice is the organizing principle of the charter movement, not the high-sounding platitudes about helping under-served children.
Segregation is the third original sin of charter schools in Minnesota. The first proposal for charter schools in the state, commissioned by the Minneapolis Foundation and written by the Citizen's League, would have required the new schools to adhere to desegregation mandates. At the time Joe Nathan, one of the prime movers in Minnesota's charter school story - was against this part of the plan, according to Reichgott Junge's book.
Nathan wasn't worried about segregation because he once saw somewhere one school that was deliberately segregated and he liked it. In the end he got his way – charters in Minnesota were exempted from desegregation mandates. This was a fateful decision, as segregation turns out to be not a bug in the charter system, but instead a feature, just as Joe Nathan imagined. Today, according to a report from the University of Minnesota's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, “Of the 50 most racially concentrated Twin Cities schools, 45 are charters.” Children in charter schools in the Twin Cities are twice as likely as their public school counterparts to be enrolled in a severely segregated school.
The chief culprit in this story, as I've mentioned, is the Minneapolis Foundation, which is today implementing a strategy to build and support deliberately segregated charter schools in areas of concentrated racial poverty in the Twin Cities. You can get a sense of this from the chart shown above – which maps charter schools started or supported by the Minneapolis Foundation and it allies, overlaying a map showing poverty and concentrated racial poverty in the Twin Cities.
This strategy cynically exploits the historical state under investment in communities of color, and the racism directed at them by White majorities. Charter advocates – many of them inheritors of the power and privilege that has historically subjugated people of color – now tell those communities that they're here to save them with charter schools. It's an indication of just how much those communities have been shortchanged over the years that so many are willing to accept the freighted consequences of charter schools, with all their shortcomings.
But promoting segregation is a deal with the devil, and potentially illegal. Remember Brown vs. Board of Education? You may be familiar with a case wending its way through Minnesota courts right now on this very issue. The plaintiffs allege that a segregated education robs children of an equal education under state law. Unsurprisingly charter advocates intervened in the case, making the unusual argument that it's not segregation if people choose to segregate. The court rejected the charter advocates' argument as absurd on its face. If the state pays for charter schools, the state is directly implicated in paying for segregation.
The fourth original sin of charter schools was the lie told over and over that charter schools wouldn't threaten or take money away from regular public school districts. In fact, a number of school districts across the country are now charter-only. After the devastation of hurricane Katrina disaster capitalists combined with education reformers to turn New Orleans into a charter only city. Here in the Twin Cities the Minneapolis Foundation and it's partner the Walmart heirs at the Walton Family Foundation are trying to do the same thing to the Minneapolis Public school district.
The attack on the Minneapolis Public School District really took shape around 2008. That was the year the Minneapolis Foundation and others created a new organization called Charter School Partners. Its mission was to direct Walton Family Foundation money into new charter school startups. The Walton Family Foundation alone has contributed to 97 charter schools in Minnesota, including starting 79 of them. It has directly contributed $17 million to Minnesota charter schools. The Walmart heirs have started almost 50% of the open charter schools in Minneapolis, and 35% of the open charter schools in St. Paul. We've basically ceded the democratic function of opening and closing schools to the Walmart heirs and the people who run the Minneapolis Foundation.
Around 2015 Charter School Partners launched a program called New Schools For Minneapolis whose goal was to open 20 new charter schools in the city over the succeeding five years. But before this plan could be finished the Minneapolis Foundation decided to replace Charter School Partners with a new organization called Minnesota Comeback, a project it had been incubating internally for a few years as its “Education Transformation Initiative.”
Immediately after its launch Minnesota Comeback announced it had secured promises of $30 million in philanthropic funding, and that its goal was nothing less than 30,000 new “rigorous and relevant” charter school “seats” in Minneapolis by 2025. Whatever “rigorous and relevant” means, 30,000 new “seats” in a district that has a student population of about 36,000 students is essentially a plan to kill that public school district. By 2017 the district had already lost a quarter of its students to charters.
An article in the Star Tribune at the time quoted Minneapolis education officials expressing concern that "... Minnesota Comeback is out to undermine the traditional public school system by replacing it with a vast network of charter schools, like in New Orleans or Washington, D.C."
How might that happen? In 2013 Moody's Investors Services issued a report warning that charter schools could drain enough money from regular school districts to in effect create a mini death spiral. It warned that in response to lost revenue districts might “...cut academic and other programs, reducing service levels and thereby driving students to seek educational alternatives, including charter schools...”
It's worth remembering that in 2016 the Minneapolis school district experienced an unexpected $20 million shortfall and this year the district had a $33 million shortfall. Almost half this shortfall is for only one thing: Money the district has to take out of its per-pupil funding and send to charter schools for their special education programs.
In the aughts the charter school movement took off as the really big money from Bill Gates and the Waltons flooded the zone. To get a taste of the scale of this funding, Gates spent $2 billion on a “small school” initiative that anyone who had studied education policy could have told him would fail, as it did, but not before disrupting schools wherever it was tried, particularly New York City, which wasted 100s of millions of dollars of its own money along with the wasted Gates money.
Once the project failed Gates just walked away – no apologies for wasting public money and time, for treating kids like guinea pigs, for the harmful disruption. He just moved on to his next project – pressuring public school teachers.
This episode in plutocracy demonstrated how private money can subvert democracy by investing heavily in policy and politics. The same paradigm is at play in the startup of charter schools. It can cost quite a bit to start a charter school, and it's a tough thing to do. But once it's up and running all the money comes from the state. So startup is everything, which is why organizations like the Minneapolis Foundation and its created entities Charter School Partners and Minnesota Comeback focus on school startup. The Waltons spending $250 thousand to start a charter school is small change compared to the millions that the state will pay to the school once it's up and running.
But why would the Waltons spend this kind of money to start charter schools? In Minnesota? The answer is quite simple: To kill public school teacher unions. Today in Minnesota there are 164 operating charter schools enrolling a little over 50,000 students. Two of those schools have unionized faculty. Every public school in the state – more than 2,500 of them – is unionized.
And as you probably know union membership in the US has been declining for decades. Public sector unions are the lone remaining strength in the movement, which is why plutocrats go after them. Teachers not only make up a good portion of the national Democratic Party, but they are also loyal foot soldiers in elections.
Break up teachers' unions and you have dealt a grave blow to the Democratic Party and labor in general. Nevertheless for eight long years the administration of Barack Obama pursued this toxic policy with vigor. Democrats advocating for charter schools is both bad policy and bad politics – akin to eating your own. According to Diane Ravitch, the nation's foremost education historian, Obama set primary and secondary education in the US back decades.
In Minnesota, starting around 2008 the Minneapolis Foundation and the Waltons, along with the Bush, McKnight, St. Paul, Ciersi and other local foundations began an unprecedented buildup in charter schools, advocacy and media capacity. It was a supply-side effort, a soup-to-nuts exercise in controlling policy and discourse. This democracy-destroying top-down movement funded by billionaires was all done with tax-exempt money coming from nonprofits.
Together the philanthropies unleashed a torrent of new organizations; I'll name just a few of them: Teach for America, Charter School Partners, MinnCAN, KIPP Minnesota, Harvest Prep charter school chain, Hiawatha Academies charter school chain, Educators for Excellence, Students for Education Reform and Ed Allies. The next time you read an education story in the Star Tribune or on MinnPost, or hear one on MPR, remember those organization names, along with the new prime reformer organizations Minnesota Comeback and Great Minnesota Schools. Those supposedly impartial voices of education are in fact voices all funded by the same deep pockets.
Together these organizations have come to dominate education discourse and policy in the state. Indeed, there is in reality no one to stand up to them. They hold events, conferences, candidate forums. They commission bogus polls that local media eat up. They lobby at the legislature. At every turn they are there. Whenever media write education stories the people who work at these institutions are inevitably the major sources. They swamp the system with money and influence and have bought a seat at every table.
I'll give you one example that illustrates all these developments. The event was a 2010 Minneapolis Foundation sponsored “Minnesota Meeting,” where the guest was the head of a new organization in Connecticut called ConnCAN (Connecticut Campaign for Achievement Now). Advance publicity for the event promised an interesting conversation with Alex Johnston, the head of ConnCAN, who would talk about “ConnCAN's success in reducing the achievement gap in Connecticut.” This was yet another blatant lie, as ConnCAN's own Annual Report lamented. They hadn't managed to budge test achievement scores in Connecticut one iota.
Later it developed that this event was actually pre-publicity for the launch of MinnCAN – a Minnesota branch of ConnCAN, and that the Minneapolis Foundation and others had already given MinnCAN almost half a million dollars before Johnston ever took the stage. Yet the words “MinnCAN” were never even uttered at the event. This was sophisticated marketing slyly creating demand for a product before it was publicly launched.
A closer look at the event revealed that just about every person on the panel had received money from the Minneapolis Foundation in one way or another – yet during the event not one person admitted to this blatant conflict of interest. The head of the Minneapolis Foundation at the time, Sandra Vargas later served on the board of 50Can – the parent organization of ConnCAN.
The meeting was co-sponsored by the Itasca Project, an "employer led alliance" composed of "primarily private-sector CEOs." It describes itself as "virtual organization" that "has no standing agenda, employs no staff and owns no real estate." In other words - it is almost totally unaccountable and opaque. Johnston was introduced at the Minnesota Meeting by Mary Brainerd, "CEO of Health Partners and chair of Itasca project." In fact, Health Partners was given $100,000 by the Minneapolis Foundation in 2008 "to fund the Itasca Project for Management and initiatives."
A deeper look at the Minneapolis Foundation's tax returns revealed many grants to Twin Cities Public Television, another partner in the Minnesota Meeting, which broadcast Johnston's speech five times, and more money to the Peace Foundation, whose president, Sondra Samuels, was on the discussion panel following the talk. Even Growth & Justice, a local center-left think tank whose correspondent Dane Smith had speculated the ConnCAN meeting might hold political portent, receives grants from the foundation.
In sum this was a PR exercise where the actual goal was not mentioned, where all the panelists got money from the Minneapolis Foundation but no one copped to it, where a passel of lies were told, and where Minnesota's major public media organizations conspired to broadcast it over and over – again never revealing the money they get from the Minneapolis Foundation.
Finally I want to relate a little episode that happened last year when I launched this website, edhivemn.com. The site catalogs grants made to public, private and charter schools by the philanthropies listed above. The data is primarily derived from IRS 990s – the tax returns of non-profit organizations, which are public. The goal was to characterize the financing of the education reform movement in Minnesota, and to show how just a handful of funders manage to dominate education policy and discourse in the state.
To launch the website I wrote two stories derived from the data and my own research. The first one, titled “After 25 years charter schools a costly failure,” is a critique of the history of charters in the state written as a review of Ember Reichgott Junge's charter history book. The second story, titled “Free to choose a Walmart school,” told of how the Walton Family Foundation is responsible for almost half the charter schools in Minneapolis, and a third of all charter schools in the state. The story also revealed the Minneapolis Foundation's cynical strategy to kill the Minneapolis public school district by building deliberately segregated schools in areas of concentrated racial poverty.
Now as someone who has studied media and conservative philanthropy for more than 20 years, I've managed to forge some national links with people opposed to corporate education reform. One person who I've known for quite a while is Diane Ravitch, who I mentioned above. Diane runs a popular blog, and when I launched the website she wrote a nice post about it with a link. It was picked up nationally and made a little stir. Locally, as I've mentioned, it was a different story, as my website and reports were pretty much ignored except for a lone link by Brian Lambert in a MinnPost news digest.
But even that much publicity was too much for the Minneapolis Foundation project Minnesota Comeback, which threw a tantrum, calling myself, Ravitch and Sarah Lahm problematic “Laggards” and “Fringe Bloggers” in an email blast to their supporters. This was a disappointing response to what are serious issues raised by my website. Instead of grappling with the facts, Minnesota Comeback chose to engage in a juvenile personal attack. There's an old saying about lawyering that goes, “When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.”
In conclusion I'd like to say that we've got the education reformers on the run. But – we don't. The corporate education reform movement, despite all its failures, is stronger than ever. In Minnesota they still have a lock on policy and discourse. They have tons of money, and there are no signs that will change in the foreseeable future. There are almost no politicians of either party who are standing up to them. Recent lawsuits, both those already decided and those still in the courts, bring ominous portents.
On the other hand there are positive signs. When I began this fight more than 20 years ago there were very few people sharing my perspective. Today there are groups both nationally and locally fighting against the plutocratic Minneapolis Foundations of the country. There are good trends even in our own district. At least today the fight is on.
MORE ORIGINAL RESEARCH
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A simplified animation of how the introduction of charter schools into a public school district can lead to its extinction, through a cycle of draining students, inability to quickly react, program cuts and school closings.
Though specifics vary, across the nation charter schools are draining the students and finances of public school districts, creating distress in many. In Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Foundation is trying this very strategy with its created entity, Minnesota Comeback, whose goal is 30,000 new charter seats in the city.
Ember Reichgott Junge's book provides a clear view into the history of charter schools in Minnesota, just not the one she intended
This is a big year for charter school aficionados in Minnesota, as 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the the nation’s first charter school in St. Paul. The legislation that authorized charter schools, enacted a year earlier, though limited in scope, promised a thorough consideration of the experimental education model, which has since sprouted up in 43 states and the District of Columbia.
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The implicit deal was to trade charter school integration for higher test scores - but it hasn't turned out that way
Questions about segregation, integration, and academic performance have been intrinsically linked in American education policy since at least 1954, when Brown v. Board held that segregated educational facilities are inherently unequal. The research leading to that decision,and the overwhelming social science consensus ever since, has suggested that segregated schools produce a host of harms for their students, and integrated schools generate a host of benefits.
Beating the odds, or beating the test?
“Odds-beating charter school.” Those words are like an impenetrable shield for those who operate such places. They are also the holy grail of the education reform movement, which is constantly seeking shortcuts to radically increase measures of educational achievement, which these days is pretty much defined by increased math and language test scores.