A big subject in local educational news has been the struggle between teachers’ unions and school districts over when and how it is safe to return to in-person classes. As we explained in the October 2020 Education Section, it’s a complex issue. For some teachers, in-person learning is what they want most, and for some families too. But other teachers, paraprofessionals, and families rightly fear it, for the many unknowns and great potential to cause the spread of COVID-19.
If you refer back to the October 2020 article, it explains a lot that is still ongoing six months later.
In general the majority of school boards and administrators want to get back to in-person learning as soon as possible, and the majority of union members in the system want better guarantees of safety, or hazard pay, or ideally both.
Families of students run the gamut. There are some who demand continued in-person learning and move their kids to parochial or other private schools to get it. There are some who demand that remote learning is available for all who want it. There are some who want to keep their kids home, but are dissatisfied with the quality of remote learning and withdraw for homeschooling. School districts struggle and don’t fully succeed in balancing all these needs.
Previously I spoke with Twin Cities DSA member Kip, a school bus driver and member of the Teamsters Union, who continued working when Saint Paul went all remote by picking up routes in White Bear Lake, which was then hybrid (a combination of remote and in-person.) I also spoke to Beth, who left her teaching job at a charter school then in hybrid mode to take a post in the Minneapolis Public School system which was then all remote.
For this Education Section, I interviewed another education worker, Brad. Brad is a Technology Assistant paraprofessional for Shakopee Public Schools (ISD 702) and his spouse is a Special Ed teacher, teaching blind students (she is also blind.)
Teachers in Shakopee, as in most suburban districts, are represented by the union Education MN, but the paraprofessionals or Education Support Professionals (ESPs) are represented by MN School Employees Association (MSEA) – a union that broke off from Education MN about 50 years ago, due to the feeling that Education MN did not represent ESPs adequately. Custodial staff in the Shakopee system are represented by SEIU.
Shakopee schools were in hybrid mode from the COVID emergency declaration in March through Thanksgiving week, after which they switched to remote-only due to the surge in COVID cases. (At the start, they also created an option called K12 Online Academy for families who wanted to be remote only.) They have been gradually transitioning back to hybrid mode since January, starting with K through 2 grades, and finishing when high school students come back in March, conditions permitting.
Brad described the scrambles, complexities, and sometimes chaos involved in this ongoing process. Part of the Technology Assistant job is distributing devices, hotspots, and other electronic gear to students when they “go remote” and then checking it back in when they return for in-person classes. It’s a big thing for school kids to be responsible for, but Brad said the kindergartners were actually better at it than the older students! (Probably got more help from their parents, to be fair.)
He described situations where the district made last-minute structure changes that meant kids weren’t isolated properly. Teachers and other staff often have to go into quarantine for exposures, even if they don’t get sick, exacerbating the already severe shortage of staff. He mentioned situations where ESPs ended up in sole supervision of large classes because there were so few teachers. “Teachers, more than almost anyone, understand the need for kids to get back to classes, but they and we worry about safety. I’m a parent myself, so I understand the conflict,” he said.
More than ever before, solidarity both within and between unions is supporting education workers in these difficult times. One example of this is found within the Twin Cities DSA Labor Branch, where a tight-knit, very active Education Workers’ Working Group has formed.
When, after being all-remote for the 2020-21 year until that point, Minneapolis Public Schools announced they would be transitioning to hybrid learning in early February (and Saint Paul Public Schools announced the same thing), both teachers’ unions, MFT59 in Minneapolis and SPFE28 in Saint Paul, reacted swiftly, with MFT59 filing a civil injunction. The court did not grant all the demands in the injunction, but did affirm that any staff with a valid accommodation in place or in process could work from home without suffering loss.
There is another big issue facing Minnesotans interested in preserving public education and improving its quality – the proposed MN Constitutional amendment called “the Page Amendment.” It’s sometimes referred to as the Federal Reserve amendment, because the other co-author, besides Justice Alan Page, is Neel Kashkari, a former Republican candidate for governor of California, now the head of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. (A writer in a previous issue of The Little Red Letter argued forcefully against the Page Amendment.)
According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which remains neutral on the amendment:
To critics, Kashkari’s participation is cause for concern: As the Republican candidate for governor of California in 2014, he campaigned on vouchers and other free-market reforms as a means of improving public schools.
“The Page Amendment’s language does not appear to explicitly mandate the creation of a public school system at all, only that any public schools that do exist meet ‘achievement standards,’ ” University of Minnesota researchers Myron Orfield and Will Stancil wrote in a 2020 memo.
The decidedly pro-, almost boosterish language of the home page of Our Children MN, a group formed around the amendment with support from the Minneapolis Fed and several local think tanks, can be seen here: ourchildrenmn.com/about/. The communications chief of this group is prominent Republican Kirsten Kukowski, but there are also DFL heavy-hitters in the coalition, including MN Attorney General Keith Ellison and Paul Wellstone protege Nevada Littlewolf, former campaign director in MN for Biden. The bill to place the amendment on the 2022 ballot is co-authored by DFL Representative Hodan Hassan of Minneapolis, along with several DFL and Republican co-authors, according to KSTP.
But there are equally trustworthy and well-reasoned voices against it, and a consensus against it is forming, if not yet reached, among the left wing of the DFL, progressive academics, and educator’s unions, including Education MN.
In the same Star-Tribune piece, Denise Specht, president of Education MN, said “I don’t see the plan here. I see magic words on paper, but nobody has been able to clearly articulate to me how this would actually work, how does this make a difference?”
David Schultz, a well-known progressive commentator and legal expert as well as a professor of political science at Hamline University, made a more pointed criticism of the amendment’s gaps and pitfalls in MinnPost, the online news journal. Schultz starts by quoting the entirety of the proposed amendment:
All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.
He then puts on his legal scholar hat (he’s that as well) and takes this apart pretty much word by word. After parsing all the shortcomings, he sums up with:
Current constitutional language does not prevent the development of any of this; the problem has not been law but political will. New constitutional language as suggested by Page and Kashkari too will not guarantee it, but instead would potentially push critical decisions about education into the courts, where judges will have to make these decisions. It is not clear that this approach is desirable, and it leaves policy formulation up to the distortions of plaintiff legal strategy — and not one necessarily based on promoting overall sound educational policy.
Another good critical analysis, more from the standpoint of political power and stakes in the game, is found in Sarah Lahm’s recent article in the Progressive. And finally, see this PDF document to get a full legal analysis by a team of experts.
We will close with an in memoriam to a brilliant educator and organizer who passed away at age 67 on February 8, 2021. Karen Lewis was President Emerita of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). She was immortalized in the popular book on organizing by Jane MacAlevey, No Shortcuts. She led the successful strike against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school board in 2012. In honoring her, the CTU said, “Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement.”
– Deb R.