OPINION | Fear, loathing, distraction in Minneapolis


The dark arts of public policy distraction are alive and well in Minneapolis. When Minneapolis residents should be evaluating mayoral candidates’ policy and leadership proposals relative to mayoral authority and responsibility, the conservative education reform movement is distracting citizens and candidates from discussing the city’s real challenges. The distraction is a double whammy. Not only is ed reform poor school policy but Minneapolis city issues are real, pressing and richly deserve debate.

Like a parasite, the conservative education reform movement has burrowed into the mayoral election skin. You’d think that Minneapolis residents might have a host of leadership concerns for the city’s next mayor, but judging from recent discussions, schooling policy is more important than crime, poverty, healthcare access, city services and job-centered economic development. Instead, education reform movement’s local advocates have insisted that prospective city leaders embrace a distraction. Judging by the recent education-themed mayoral debate, the distraction strategy is working.

First, a pop quiz. What’s the Minneapolis Mayor’s authority over the Minneapolis Public Schools? Answer: none. What’s the Minneapolis Mayor’s power to direct Minneapolis Board of Education policy? Answer: none. What’s the Minneapolis Mayor’s financial responsibility for the Minneapolis Public Schools? Answer: none. What’s the Minneapolis Mayor’s role in hiring or firing the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Superintendent? Answer: none.

Lastly, if the answer to all questions is none, why this obsession over the mayor’s role in Minneapolis education? Answer: Hmmmmm.

I’m a Saint Paul guy. Before that, I lived on my family’s farm three miles outside of Walnut Grove. But, I freely acknowledge that Minneapolis is Minnesota’s commercial and cultural center. In rural Minnesota, when people visit the Twin Cities, they really mean Minneapolis as in, yah, we’re goin’ to the Cities to see the Gophers play Iowa. In many small towns, the distinction between Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs -politically independent cities with property taxing and bonding authority- is not only lost, it’s irrelevant.

The State Capitol is in Saint Paul. The State Fair is in Falcon Heights. The MSP airport is in Bloomington. But, none of that matters because everyone assumes, even if they know that they’re wrong, that it’s all Minneapolis. Consequently, what Minneapolis elected political leaders do impacts the entire state. A successful, healthy and growing Minneapolis is in Minnesota’s best interest. Minnesota needs Minneapolis to be the most Minneapolis-y Minneapolis that Minneapolis can be.

The education reform movement is not, as the name suggests, interested in reforming public education. It is terrifically interested in undermining the public’s confidence in public schools, leading to spending a lot less money on public education. That’s good for high income earners looking to increase their high incomes by reducing public spending but it’s bad for the 99% relying on public education to grow family stability. Less schooling translates directly into lower lifetime earnings.

Ed reform advocates posit a narrowly-drawn crisis that can only be resolved through an equally narrowly-drawn solution. Diverging from ed reform answers only invites the accusation that disagreement is proof of complicity with failure. It’s a vicious circle.

Education reform is the conservative education policy equivalent of “no new taxes.” Under the anti-tax strategy, anti-government fiscal conservatives present a ready, simple answer to every problem. The economy is down? Cut taxes. The economy is expanding? Cut taxes. Whatever the challenge, a tax reduction policy is always the answer. The same holds with education reform although conservative reform advocates haven’t boiled their simple answer to three words.

Ed reformers blow hard about ill-defined, implausible education performance metrics. One day it’s about standardized test performance. The next it’s about teacher evaluations. The day after that it’s about teacher licensure. As a school performance strategy, education reforms policy proposals have more in common with nailing jello to a wall than they do in producing well-educated students.

Instead, this whole movement is a master stroke of conservative policy distraction. Whenever policy criticism skips around, morphing into whatever its advocates need it to be, distraction is afoot. Kids and families are curiously and alarmingly absent from education reform prescriptions. Any school system’s ultimate measure, borne over time, is the quality of life achieved and advanced by its graduates. A well-educated citizenry’s education is a function of a strong public K12 school system. Weaker, underfunded schools produce a less capable citizenry and workforce.

Minneapolis’ next mayor confronts many challenges. With a 23% overall poverty rate and an average 40% poverty rate among communities of color, creating a path forward, out of poverty, will take real work and true leadership. Minneapolis needs to diversify its business economy. It needs a more aggressive sustainable energy strategy. Minneapolis doesn’t need more ginned up conservative public policy distractions and it certainly doesn’t need the education reform movement. Minnesota needs Minneapolis to choose wisely.

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