Education roundup: MPS has many balls in the air; meanwhile Saint Paul teachers may be on the verge of a strike

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Editor’s note: A version of this column appears in the March 2 edition of Southside Pride.

Whew! I hardly know where to start. On March 10th, a coalition of pissed-off parents is going to march to demand Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) go back to the drawing board on their Comprehensive District Design (CDD) and this time consult meaningfully and in-advance with the community, especially parents. Meanwhile ESPs (Education Support Professionals) are still in contract negotiations after more than nine months and numerous informational pickets. 

In other news, the Saint Paul teachers’ union, SPFE #28, voted to authorize a strike. More on that below. 

Minneapolis ESPs contract 

I managed to attend an informational picket of the ESPs (they’re what used to be called paraprofessionals) at Lucy Laney School. There seemed to be a lot of public support for the union, with both foot traffic cheering and giving thumbs-up and passing drivers honking in support. I eavesdropped as Shaun Laden, President of the MFT 59 ESP Chapter, the union involved, gave a brief interview to a video journalist. I then asked him if I could take a few photos, which he agreed to. 

ESPs in the Minneapolis system are absolutely vital, performing such essential jobs as special education assistant, interpreter, physical therapist assistant, and childcare assistant, and many more. Pay for most ESPs is 20K to low 30K range, and yet they pay the same amount for health care premiums as colleagues making over $100K. About two thirds of ESPs are working second or even third jobs to survive. (One of their two picket signs carries the slogan “One Job Ought To Be Enough!”) Many qualify for benefits and some are housing insecure or homeless. MPS struggles to retain ESPs and are always short-staffed (duh!) And yet the past two 2-year contracts have included step-freezes (where employees cannot move up to the next pay level despite time in the role) and 0% to 2% wage increases overall. The union has not called for a strike authorization vote yet, but something clearly has to give. You can get more detailed and up-to-date information on the union’s website at https://www.mft59.org/esp-chapter

Minneapolis Comprehensive District Design (CDD) 

Like the punishingly austere contracts with ESPs, the contents, if not the motivation, of the new redesign of the MPS district is driven by shrinking revenue and increasing external costs. Of course, this is a vicious cycle. As the leaflet handed out by picketing ESPs rather obviously states, poverty wages lead to staff shortages and low morale. Deficiencies in the workforce (teacher “churn” included) lead concerned parents to withdraw their kids from the system, and this leads to further loss of revenues. Sadly, between the lofty rhetoric behind the CDD and the meagerness of the actual offerings to decide between, there is a great chasm. This is caused by – yep – lack of revenue. 

The impetus behind the CDD is laid out as a needed correction to years of policy that has widened the racial achievement gap. The language is unassailable, in my opinion: 

“We fundamentally believe that continuing to do nothing… and maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. Closing the achievement gap at Minneapolis Public Schools requires us to critically examine the foundation of our district, question long-held assumptions,…  and take action … to combat institutionalized racism at all levels of the organization. 

“What The Data Tells Us 

  • The systems in our schools are designed to disadvantage students of color, who show lower academic achievement as a result.
  • Our most academically proficient buildings, and often those with the most white students and fewest low-income students, have more experienced teachers than our other buildings.
  • Students in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods have more access to rigorous, advanced academic coursework.
  • 80% of the students who leave MPS each year are students of color.”

Powerful stuff. 

Despite the fact that study after study shows that both white students and students of color benefit the most from the most diverse school population, all other things being controlled for, parents of white students often protest against the mechanisms used to try to address racial imbalance and racial disparities in schools. So we would not be at all surprised at white, middle-class, relatively privileged parents opposing the CDD. But parents of BIPOC students are also opposed to it in significant numbers, and often because they, too, feel that they are losing something. And they are, because to do what the district wants to do without taking a little bit from everyone would cost more than they can raise. 

At this point, there are five different versions of the CDD. If you want to explore all the plans and their implications, go to https://tinyurl.com/w872ly7 and click on your preferred language to open a PDF document. Rumors that the plans involve closing schools or eliminating magnets completely are false. But specific schools and specific magnet programs will change substantially under most of the plans. 

There is a march planned for March 10 by “a diverse grassroots collection” of parents and their allies. They are not protesting the CDD so much as protesting how late in the game they feel they were consulted. See https://www.facebook.com/events/1015905018808924 for more. 

Other MN education news

There is a right-wing supported bill to amend the MN constitution to remove the requirement to provide all students in the state a “uniform” education. An advocacy group called Education Minnesota is fighting it and is supporting the Teachers of Color Act. You can find out more and get involved at https://educationminnesota.org/.

Saint Paul Union update (as of time of writing) 

The Saint Paul teachers’ union overwhelmingly voted for an authorization to strike on Thursday, February 20. The strike authorization does not automatically trigger a strike, butif the union announces a starting date for a strike they have to give the district 10 days notice by state law. So negotiations continue, but with the threat of a strike now in play. 

“Schoolfinder” for Minneapolis 

The Minneapolis Schoolfinder, a joint project of the private-public partnerships MN Comeback and Great MN Schools, has been published online. This organization assists private, parochial, and charter schools. Their schools rating handbook and directory looks at public schools and gives parents tips on finding the best fit for their kids. Schools are rated High-Performing, High-Potential, down through Persistently Low. These ratings seem to be based solely on test scores and determined “grade level” conformity. Some of the ratings are not surprising: Southwest and Washburn are the only High Performing public high schools, with South and Henry coming in High Potential. The one that’s absolutely killing it, though, is Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which claims a 100% graduation and college acceptance rate! It also says it has a 100% students of color enrollment, but no data on the percentage of teachers of color. Also no data on any performances, probably because the Jesuits don’t need no stinking standardized testing. Which raises the question why it was not in the Limited Data category like El Colegio, a similar school though it’s a charter and almost 100% Latinx and actually has a bit more data shown than Cristo Rey. Oh, well, it’s beyond me. If you want to peruse, go to https://www.minneapolisschoolfinder.org/#/school.

–Deb KR

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