The State of Public Education




A version of this article originally appeared in Southside Pride.

What does the internet say?

I don’t watch TV any more, so I never see TV news; I never did listen to radio much and I can’t afford the Strib. How do I stay so well-informed, you ask? I have learned to maximize the internet. It’s true; I get all my news from social media, email newsletters, and free online papers. 

If you see all my friends’ kids and grandkids with their adorable and hopeful FDOS pictures, and read the majority of education workers “glad to be back” posts without delving into just what’s wrong with what they’re coming back to, you’d think schools are in great shape. Especially in Minnesota, and if you temporarily forget that, go back to midsummer and look at that picture of all the young children  swarming Gov. Walz with hugs for signing the free school breakfast and lunch bill into law. But what if you’re in, say, Florida? 

I got my major reality check from a meme, showing comedian Wanda Sykes making a statement that reflects the basic crack in today’s education policies and politics. “Until a drag queen walks into a school and beats eight kids to death with a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, I think you’re focusing on the wrong s**t.” 

As the 2023-24 school year begins, child poverty is on a sharp rise {cite}, and the shortage of qualified teachers far outstrips the already large general labor shortage {cite}. State governments badly fumbled protecting kids during the pandemic, so we have little faith in how they will cope with inevitable future crises. And every so often a bad guy with a gun just breaks in and shoots and kills a bunch of kids while armed cops cower in fear in the parking lot. But a large chunk of the elected officials in charge believe the biggest threats to kids are drag queens, trans people, and “critical race theory” (teaching about race and racism in public schools). 

The following are some short takes, along with their internet sources, on some of the aspects of the continuing education crisis, looking at labor issues, lunches, libraries, and more. As well as a little incidental good news. We’ll start with a national outlook, then home in on Minnesota and the metro area. 

The overall impact of anti-education laws (Zinn Education Project) 

Here are some quotes from educators around the US:

  • Our school library now looks like a ghost town. — Florida
  • Teachers feel like they can’t teach factual history or even talk about current events without fear of losing their job. — Texas
  • I have been threatened by anti-education parents. — Utah
  • I am an American History teacher. Every lesson I teach is a chance that I will enrage the wrong person and put a target on my back. — Virginia
  • It is creating divides among teachers who are scared of the law and those who refuse to stop teaching the truth. — New Hampshire

The Zinn Education Project is galvanizing resistance by offering a “Pledge to Teach the Truth” that educators can sign on to, and use their solidarity with others as a bulwark against the unjust laws aiming to destroy public education. Read it here:

Community schools vs. the right wing (In the Public Interest)

Right-wing politicians paint public schools as centers of indoctrination and antithetical to the desires and needs of parents and families.

“We’re going to be making sure that time in school is being spent learning and not just being targets of indoctrination,” [Florida governor] DeSantis said before the passing of his Stop WOKE Act last year. …[At a speech in] Iowa in March, Trump promised, “I will bring parental rights back into our school system.” Those talking points are part of a right-wing strategy that seeks to weaken, control [and eventually privatize] public education.

But often it’s public schools that respond to the real fears and needs of parents, while it’s the right-wing that’s doing the indoctrination (or trying to). This is especially the case with community schools, which proactively engage families to ensure the school is responding to the community. So far, community schools have had many successes making measurable improvements in everything from attendance to graduation rates. Results for banning books and hating drag performers have been … elusive. 

“War on woke” causing a brain-drain (The Nation) 

Speaking of Governor DeSantis and his war on woke, he has dropped his references to the word “woke” in his speeches since anecdotal evidence began pouring in that educators were leaving either the profession or the state in droves. 

Andrew Spar, head of the Florida Education Association (FEA), heard from many teachers about their problems now with impossible policies and public vilification and even threats, compounding the issue of low pay (Florida ranks 48th in the US for educator pay scales.) 

Spar’s anecdotal experiences are borne out by statistics. In January 2019, when DeSantis was sworn into his first term as governor, there were 2,217 teacher vacancies in the state’s K-12 public schools. As he entered his second term in January 2023, that number had ballooned to 5,294, according to the FEA. This August, the FEA found the number of unfilled positions neared a staggering 7,000.

It’s not just K-12 schools either. Higher education faculty are also leaving in droves, and a majority of college-bound seniors are looking only outside their home state for education. Still, even though he’s not talking about it as much, the Florida governor is doubling down on the actual conduct of his phony war, telling graduating seniors to “go to Berkeley.”  

School lunch horrors and joys (Civil Eats) 

Two phrases that would not exist in a sane society – 1. School-lunch debt (now estimated at about $262 million!) and 2. school-lunch debt shaming. Civil Eats reports:

Prior to the pandemic [when free meals were instituted nationwide for two years], some schools had resorted to tactics that embarrassed kids, such as stamping their hands to remind parents of unpaid bills and substituting cold cheese sandwiches for hot meals. Sometimes meals were thrown out in front of children. And while experts say that fewer districts have resumed these practices—often dubbed “lunch shaming”—they haven’t gone away entirely either.

At least that’s one thing Minnesota kids, teachers, and parents won’t have to worry about, thanks to our 2022 electoral trifecta. The above article reports further:

And in a small handful of states, they haven’t gone back: Lawmakers in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont have made universally free school meals permanent.

Further down in the same issue, Civil Eats covered the impact of the labor shortage on US school cafeterias, and a synergy was discovered. When free school meals are instituted in a state, revenue goes up (more kids eat the meals) and admin costs go down, and this helps to alleviate the labor shortage by allowing for more pay and more stability. Could it be that trying to extract a profit out of something that was mandated as free in the danged old Constitution is really the problem here? 

Teacher and other labor shortages in Minnesota (MPRnews) 

The teacher shortages, as well as paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, bus drivers and more, were bad before the pandemic. Now they are dire in some parts of the state. Openings that used to attract 20 or more applicants now attract one or two. As of August 9 this year, there were an estimated 2000 open jobs in education with zero applicants. 

Various school districts are using different means to attract more staff. In St. Paul, hefty hiring bonuses and a series of job fairs came close to closing the gap. Local educators’ unions are also addressing the problem. 

Book ban fail in Carver County (MPRnews) 

In September, the Carver County library board voted not to ban a book that had received a complaint and request for banning from a single person after virtually all the respondents in public meetings or via email urged them to not ban the book. 

The book in question was Gender Queer: A Memoir, written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe. It is at the top of the American Library Association’s most challenged books list, and describes Kobabe’s childhood, growing up in California and coming out to family and friends. The author said in an interview in January that when the book was published in 2019, “it was met with initially … this absolute wave of love and support.” 

Absenteeism crisis in Minnesota schools (Axios Twin Cities)

About 30% of Minnesota kids were chronically absent from public schools last year, a figure that doubles the 2019 rate of 15%. (“Chronically absent” is defined as missing 10% or more school days in a school year.) 

Rates are even worse in Minneapolis, where MPS reported 2019’s attendance rate as 79% and 2022’s as only 46%! Across the board, the numbers are worse, roughly double in some cases, for students of color, lower incomes, and those receiving special education services. MPS is ramping up its “Check and Connect” program in response.

By Debra KR