Follow the money


My rule, when confronted with rejection of my writing or a nasty e-mail, is to wait a week to see where the message settles. I decided to do this with the one piece of news that was especially troubling me about this last election. Also, I wanted to give myself a whole week to enjoy the rest of the election news, to feel my neck muscles relax, my breathing come easier and a sense of hope dominate my outlook. I felt true jubilation as we defeated two oppressive amendments that had been proposed for our state and as Democrats took over both houses of the legislature. Like many people I know, I had not realized how worried I was by this election until it was over. I carry tension in my shoulders and forehead. Now I can sit with friends without having to turn my head from side to side to loosen the knots, or massage my brow to ease the headache about to take hold. It is a good feeling.

Yet four days later came the news, that a young man named Josh Reimnitz had defeated Patty Wycoff for school board in Minneapolis. I am sure Josh is a well-meaning individual. I am quite convinced that he believes he is going to do something right for our community and school system. I also know that he outspent Wycoff, a community activist for seventeen years who has two children in our schools, by $32,000. Wycoff’s campaign had raised just $5000. Wycoff herself urged those with limited financial means to spend it donating to groups urging no votes on the amendments. Reimnitz received help from a “so-far unreported level of spending by an outside New York based education reform political action committee.” (Star Tribune, November 10, “Upset in the school board race”). The article also stated that the “heavy spending came partly through Reimnitz’s connections as a Teach for America instructor in Atlanta for two years.”

I know that Reimnitz was endorsed not only by Mayor Rybak, but also by anti- teacher union activists and others connected to Minneapolis Public Schools, many of whom profess to be liberals. I am stunned that people who have worked in community organizing themselves, who know the importance of connecting with those who put in the time in their neighborhoods and who understand the needs of their communities, can find an exception in this case. It astounds me that Reimnitz’s money and outside corporate connections poses no problem for those who profess to care about the democratic process. Is it because the most important thing we should be doing now is dismantling teacher unions? Is it because Minneapolis School Administrators have a misplaced belief that Teach for American is salvation for our kids and thus Reminitz’s connections outweigh Wycoff’s seventeen years of hard work and knowledge? 

I know that Teach for America has become influential in our city. I know that young people who join this group sincerely believe they are doing the right thing when they come into schools for their requisite two years, schools where poor students make up at least seventy-five percent of the population. I have been hard on them for the last four years and I will continue to question their lack of in-depth training, their lack of experience in our city, much less in public schools and the embrace they have received from neo liberals all over the country.

One evening, over dinner, a former TFA teacher told me to “follow the money” if I wanted to know what was really behind this organization. This teacher was blunt in her assessment of the corporate influence on education and TFA from Eli Broad to Bill Gates. I myself have co-led training for KIPP Schools: Knowledge Is Power Program which is a set of schools that employs primarily TFA teachers. While I admired the participants’ decision to “give back” I was not sure I would want them giving back in my city, my schools. I have received late night phone calls and had conversations with veteran teachers in schools staffed primarily by TFA. I have been disheartened when they tell me they are going to leave teaching because they want to get married, or have a child, or study music a couple of evenings a week. I don’t want the children in my city taught by anyone who is not a fully realized human being. I don’t want martyrs or cheerleaders (KIPP teachers mention being “kippmotized”) or people who do not take the community seriously while working in the schools in this city.

I have always thought that TFA could be marvelous for schools if they came in to assist in classrooms. For two years they could co lead some classes, developing new projects and ideas for kids. They could run after school programs. I would fully support this. Yet the trend in this organization has been to replace experienced teachers, or to create schools of their own that draw students away from public schools.

So I come back to following the money. And I wonder how insidious this effort is to dismantle public schools. I wonder how Josh Reimnitz can move into a district weeks before filing and find $37,000 dollars in his pocket for a school board election. Perhaps he will surprise me. Perhaps he will not feel beholden to those who financed him. I hope so. For the kids’ sake, I hope so. Because education is not for the adults, as so many anti public school teacher groups repeatedly tell us. Yet isn’t Teach For America an organization that is built primarily for creating an experience for its adult members by providing them a chance to ‘give back” for two years? Since when is having inexperienced teachers in our classrooms putting kids first?