Minneapolis school board candidate “People’s Forum”: A reader’s guide

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There is one final pre-primary candidate forum for this year’s Minneapolis School Board candidates, but incumbent citywide candidate Rebecca Gagnon will not be there.

The event is being billed as the “People’s Forum,” and it will be held at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis on August 6. Gagnon’s objection to the event centers on the group that has been promoting it: Students for Education Reform (SFER).

“I am all for engaging in dialogue and debate,” said Gagnon, “but both sides have to be respectful.” Instead, Gagnon says that is not what the upcoming forum is about. For one thing, she says SFER has been openly and actively campaigning on behalf of one citywide candidate: Don Samuels. (According to this SFER “Action Network” promo piece, it looks like these canvassing SFER reps are being paid to drum up votes for Samuels).

SFER has selected their candidate, in her view, and “now they want to engage in a conversation about education?” To Gagnon, this seems “incredibly disingenuous and disrespectful.”

SFER, however, is not the only group behind the August 6 forum. And the list of who else is part of it has made Gagnon conclude that the Minneapolis school board race is turning into a “national event.”

Here is a list of some of the groups, in addition to SFER, who are behind the “People’s Forum,” according to the New York PR firm, Group Gordon, that sent out a media advisory for the event on behalf of SFER’s 501c 4 companion organization, the SFER Action Network. (The difference between a 501c3 and a 501c4 is briefly explained in this post.)

SFER:

“Students for Education Reform” has a nice grassroots ring to it, but it is more closely connected with the current crop of “Astroturf” education reform groups that seem to grow like weeds, thanks to very generous financial support from wealthy non-students.

In 2010, for example, SFER is listed as a beneficiary of 1.6 million dollars in funding, along with Michelle Rhee’s “StudentsFirst” group, on the IRS Form 990 filed by the hedge fund/banker-led group Education Reform Now.

There are some great resources that pick apart the “student-led” narrative crafted by SFER. Here, a college student named Zach Lipp deconstructs SFER. Here, education activist and blogger Jonathan Pelto recounts his experience with SFER members in Connecticut.

To be clear: SFER is a national group, financed by very wealthy, prominent education reform advocates. Former Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart is now listed as a board member for SFER.

Teach for America (TFA):

During the 2013-2014 school year, thirteen TFA recruits were working in Minneapolis Public Schools classrooms, while another fifty-eight of them worked in local charter schools (these numbers were provided to me by TFA-Twin Cities Executive Director Crystal Brakke in May 2014).

TFA, however, is poised to expand its presence here thanks to its new partnership with the University of Minnesota. This partnership was the source of protest for some U of M students and faculty members.

TFA has several interesting links to the Twin Cities. For example, the co-CEO of TFA is Edina resident Matt Kramer. Kramer’s parents are also the publishers of local online newspaper MinnPost, hence the “Kramer Disclaimer” that accompanies all of MinnPost education writer Beth Hawkins’ pieces.

TFA is a nonprofit whose revenue in 2012, according to Forbes, was $318 million. Over the years, TFA has received around $100 million dollars in support from the Walton Foundation, which is run by Wal-Mart heirs. This article about TFA, from the Public School Shakedown website, offers a look at this group’s policy goals.

Educators 4 Excellence (E4E):

Two Minnesota “Teacher of the Year” award winners, Tom Rademacher (2014) and Lee Ann Stephens (2006) will be moderating the August 6 “People’s Forum.” Rademacher and Stephens are also part of E4E, which builds itself as a “teacher-led” group but is in fact another “Astroturf” entity with clear ties to corporate education reform. Stephens also serves on MinnCAN’s board of directors (see below for more MinnCAN info).

E4E sprouted up overnight a few years ago, and, like SFER, says it is focused on issues of justice, equity, and student/teacher-led movements, but somehow has the financial chops to get its message out through a fancy PR firm. With SFER, it’s Group Gordon. With E4E, it is SDK Knickerbocker. This blog post from Edushyster.com references this incongruency.

Owen Davis, a writer from New York, offers this look at E4E’s connection to the push to evaluate teachers using standardized test scores.

MinnCAN:

MinnCAN arrived in Minnesota in 2011, as a 50CAN offshoot. 50CAN is a very well funded group hailing from Connecticut; 50CAN, along with MinnCAN, advocates for market-based reforms for public schools. These reform preferences include competition among schools, an increase in charter school options, and evaluating teachers according to student “growth” on test scores.

MinnCAN’s list of funders and finances can be found here.

Conclusion:

It is not clear yet what, if any, local, community-led policies or initiatives—as separate from a national checklist of preferred education reform policies—will be on display at the “People’s Forum.”

However, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership did send out an email reminder about the event; perhaps this indicates the forum will not entirely hew to a nationally funded education reform agenda.

We should look to Denver, Colorado, however, for a cautionary tale about what happened in 2013, when SFER was heavily involved in advocating for certain candidates (all four of them won).