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After thirty years of devotion to “reform” (aka, deform or disruption), reform leaders in Minnesota are proposing a state constitutional amendment that will install more mischief into the state’s public schools. Rob Levine, an ardent critic of privatization, has written this account of their multiple failures and their plans to try yet again to impose their ideas on the state’s schools. He wrote this post at my request, after I saw his tweets about the travesty that “reformers” are promoting. Rob is a “follow the money” kind of person, which unsurprisingly removes the veil from bold promises that never come true. Minnesota is allowing big money to dictate the fate of its schools. Is there any accountability in the state for thirty years of failure? Why do “reformers” never learn from their failures?
In the Fall of 2022 Minnesotans may be voting on a constitutional amendment that will fundamentally change state law around public education. How will this change public education? Surprisingly, even the authors profess not to know the answer to this question. The only thing certain about the proposed amendment is that it will empower courts and throw districts, parents and others into constant legal battles.
That’s because the amendment upends state law and tradition both in the language it removes and the language it adds. It doesn’t really say anything about how children should be educated, only that they will have a right to a ‘quality’ education as measured by standardized tests and as determined by the courts, with nothing in the amendment to guide them as to permissible remedies.
A lot of ink has been spilled in Minnesota over the proposed ‘Page’ amendment, but almost no one has investigated either the organizations and people behind the amendment, nor the subtext of it. The education discourse is same as it ever was, but in this case the education reformers – who have failed for 30 years to improve educational outcomes – want to open Pandora’s box.
The amendment is a half-baked, dangerous idea, as a number of scholars and experts recently wrote to Minnesota legislators. It would weaken protections against segregation while simultaneously enshrining invalid standardized test scores in the state constitution.
Who’s really behind this proposed amendment? The powerful philanthropies who for decades have meddled in Minnesota education, almost always to failure. They have been trying to privatize public education for decades. They favor a system where the public pays for things but public employees don’t provide the services.
The campaign’s face is Alan Page, the former pro football star and state supreme court justice. His foundation has received more than three quarters of a million dollars over the past 10 years from the Minneapolis Foundation, the Saint Paul Foundation and its controlled entity the Minnesota Community Foundation.
For 30 years the Minneapolis Foundation has been meddling in the affairs of the Minneapolis Public School District, often actually telling it what to do while at the same time driving the privatization of public schools through ‘school choice.’ Since about 2008 the vehicle for the destruction is charter schools, a movement it both created and sustained in myriad ways. The result has been stagnant learning across the state for 20 years, increased segregation, and public school districts on the brink.
The Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis is also playing a role in advocating for the amendment: a creature of the federal government applying substantial resources and trying to influence and change Minnesota constitutional law.
The bad faith of these foundations and advocates started decades ago when the state considered the nation’s first charter school legislation. History shows that the prime mover behind this legislation was the Minneapolis Foundation, and its ideological guru Ted Kolderie, the charter whisperer. Most people have probably never heard of him, but there are more than a hundred references to him in former DFL legislator and author of the charter school legislation Ember Reichgott Junge’s book, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, that chronicled how that first charter school legislation came to be.
In a 1990 monograph titled “The states will have to withdraw the exclusive” that argued for competition in the education space, Kolderie told a bunch of whoppers, including that charter schools would increase teacher pay, allow them to control schools, and characterized students as “customers.” None of those predictions have come true. Minnesota now has about 170 charter schools. TWO of them are unionized, so, no, charter schools have not empowered teachers.
Then there’s the organization actually leading this constitutional amendment campaign, Our Children MN, an opaque non-profit incorporated just a year ago whose sole purpose seems to be passing the amendment. Our Children has not disclosed one penny of its funding.
The organizing leading the charge is Our Children, an opaque non-profit that has not disclosed one penny of its funding.
According to Our Children’s website, Michael Ciresi, Minnesota philanthropist and former DFL senate candidate sits on its board of directors. Ciresi hates the Minneapolis Public School District so much that he bought billboards across the street from district headquarters to spread racial disinformation.
Ciresi himself is no slouch when it comes to failing at education reform. His foundation has funded a number of now closed charter school entities, including Charter School Partners, MinnCAN, Harvest Prep charter school, and last but not least, Minnesota Comeback.
Ciresi’s foundation gave Comeback about a half million dollars over five years. Comeback was a project of the Minneapolis Foundation, which incubated it internally as the Education Transformation Initiative. Lots of other local foundations, including the Bush, John & Denise Graves, General Mills, and others contributed to the nascent effort.
When it opened in 2016 Comeback announced $30 million in commitments from funders and promised to create “30,000 rigorous and relevant charter school seats in Minneapolis.” Whatever that meant educationally it was really a death threat to the Minneapolis Public School District, which had about 35,000 students at the time.
Three years later Comeback disappeared into the night with no announcement or media reports after reporting less than $4 million in philanthropic contributions. But don’t fear for them – Comeback was merged into Great MN Schools, an organization it formerly owned, and which is now a “Page Partner.”
This kind of abject failure of philanthropic avatars in the field of education in Minnesota is more the rule than the exception. In 2009 the Bush Foundation, a philanthropy born of 3M money, started the largest project in its history – the 10 year, $50 million Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI) (not to be confused with the Minneapolis Foundation’s failed Education Transformation Initiative).
The TEI postulated that the problem with education is teachers, and by the foundation’s strategic application of its largess so-called ‘achievement gaps’ would be ELIMINATED in three states and 50% more kids would be going to college. The foundation was also so confident of its success that it predicted the changes it would help implement would spread like wildfire nationwide. They also announced that not only would it perform this educational miracle, it would prove it with metrics!
This feat would be done by extending the so-called Value Added Model (VAM) to gauge the ‘effectiveness’ of teachers by analyzing the test scores of their students. The job, and a promise of millions of dollars in revenue, was awarded to a place called the Value Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.
Their task was to extend this discredited model originally invented to increase production of farm animals to apply to places where teachers are taught. The idea was to judge schools of education based on the standardized test scores of students taught by their graduates! One doesn’t need a PhD in social science or statistics to know that this is an insane, impossible and worthless goal.
Sure enough halfway through the project the Bush Foundation abandoned its quixotic VAM method and VARC had to be satisfied with only $2 million for its efforts. By the end of the 10 year project ‘achievement gaps’ were the same or worse, and in Minnesota instead of there being 50% more students in college, enrollment actually was down six percent. By any measure – including their own! – this project was a spectacular failure. Turns out teachers aren’t the problem! But that’s not how they saw it.
In an in-house magazine article titled “Goals for a decade revisited,” Jen Ford Reedy, president of the foundation, offered up a bold summary of the project: “We [the Bush Foundation] are proud of what we helped to make happen!”
Failure can also take different forms for the philanthropies. In 2013 the Minneapolis Foundation launched yet another huge education project called RESET Education. They even created a website for it and brought in John Legend to sing at the kickoff. Along with blaming teachers for poor test scores among some demographic groups, RESET was essentially a formula to turn Minnesota schools into testing factories. Sandra Vargas, the head of the foundation at the time, got an op-ed in the Star Tribune to tout the project, just as Our Children got one there a few weeks ago to tout the Page Amendment.
And of course the Minneapolis Foundation turned to MinnPost for coverage, as it often had, as it has been funding the organization to the tune of over $1 million since its inception. For the year of 2013 – the year of RESET – the Bush Foundation also gave MinnPost $82,000 for “Coverage and writings on K-12 education issues, best practices and overall reform efforts.”
At MinnPost reporter Beth Hawkins put the best possible face on the RESET program with gushing words about meeting celebrities and flogging the factually wrong assertions of the Minneapolis Foundation about education. That same year RESET faded into the ether just as Comeback, Charter School Partners, MinnCan and others have.
And as usual when Beth Hawkins wrote at MinnPost it was left to commenters to correct the record. It fell to Jim Barnhill, a former union leader and former Board of Teaching Member who currently works in high school administration, to get to the heart of the matter:
“How about exploring the real agenda of the Minneapolis Foundation? Why not ask the obvious question, ‘How does a business foundation posit themselves as experts in education?’”
The same question could be posed to the Federal Reserve Bank. And just what gives these foundations that have failed at education reform time and time again the right to continue intervening? A prescient person once said that “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” A corollary might apply to self-appointed ‘experts’ with deep pockets who repeatedly fail and hurt society. It’s time for Alan Page, Mike Ciresi and the Minneapolis Foundation to grab some bench.