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Perfuming the Minneapolis Public Schools   |   Minneapolis Public Schools: Roots of the crisis & a way out of it

Minneapolis Public Schools: Roots of the crisis & a way out of it
Write-in "Doug Mann" for School Board
Another Option for Minneapolis School Board Voters (2004 General Election)
by Doug Mann, 29 Oct 2004, Submitted to the Star-Tribune for publication 28 Oct 2004

Mpls issues list
Subj:      [Mpls] public schools: roots of the crisis & a way out of it.
Date:     10/23/2004 4:06:37 PM Central Daylight Time

The Minneapolis Public School system must be reformed in such a way as to make a quality education accessible to all on an equal basis. The system of public education as we know it is being replaced by a semi-privatized system of nonunion charter schools.  The resources at the disposal of any given school will increasingly depend on funds raised from private sources, as is currently the case in California, where schools serving the wealthier residential areas have more resources to work with than schools serving low income areas.

The current budget crisis is, for the most part, the result of educational quality deteriorating in most schools that serve a large proportion of low-income and minority students, and the flight of those students from the district's schools. Districtwide enrollment in the early elementary grades has fallen rapidly since 1998. First grade enrollment is down something on the order of 30% since 1998. The district is losing federal Title 1 money as low-income students opt out of district-run schools and enroll in charter schools. And the district has been spending less on basic programming in those schools (especially on average teacher salaries).


The current crisis of the public schools is, to a large degree, a byproduct of reduced per-pupil, inflation-adjusted appropriations for K-12 and higher education since the late 1970s, and strategies employed to hold down payroll
costs since that time. School employees unions, including the teachers unions, generally went along with "a strategy of gradual retrenchment," which involved holding down base wages and increasing the amount of compensation that went into steps (in the case of teachers, steps and lanes).  For example, in a year when the cost of living was estimated to increase by 5%, the base pay would go up 2%, and pay increases linked to steps and lanes would increase the wage of the highest paid teacher by another 3%. The district held down its payroll cost increase to about 3%. For teachers about halfway up the pay ladder, this sort of outcome was seen as "win-win" bargaining.

However, by the late 1980s, the difference between the high and low ends of the pay ladder had grown enormously.  For example, a pay scale where the top wage was 120% of the base wage in 1975 might be 150% by 1990. The average length of employment for teachers was also going up, which at a certain point made it impossible to hold down payroll costs. By the early 1990s many urban school districts were routinely laying off teachers who were to be rehired or
replaced (those who found other jobs could be replaced without forcing the district to pay out unemployment benefits).

During the 1990s a growing proportion of urban teachers were inexperienced teachers, and the inexperienced teachers were more and more likely to be assigned to schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students. In
Minneapolis that process was accelerated by a class size reduction program carried out during the early 1990s and the community school plan, adopted by the Minneapolis Board of Education in 1995. The class size reduction program created opportunities for teachers to bid into the more desirable schools and out of the less desirable ones. Under the community plan the North Side (northwest quadrant of Minneapolis), with a high proportion of low-income and minority
students, had community schools that were initially overenrolled (big class sizes). And overall, Southwest Minneapolis, where the population is predominantly white and high income, had community schools that were underenrolled (and tended to have smaller than average class sizes).

The Minneapolis school district has also been promoting a tracking system in which low-income and minority students are heavily overrepresented in curriculum tracks for "slow learners." There are some schools that don't track (the open schools were set up as non-tracking schools, tracking also conflicts with the principles of the Montessori schools) In the district's schools that track (put students in separate classrooms according to whether they are designated as being basically fast, medium and slow learners), the differences in outcomes between tracks may have decreased in recent years in SW Minneapolis, but that does not seem to be the case in schools that most of the district's low-income and minority students attend.

I believe there is a way to make a quality education accessible to all students in the Minneapolis Public School system. The most important steps: 1) The district must stop laying off teachers at the end of one school year it plans
to rehire or replace the next. 2) the district must distribute probationary teachers (employed less than 3 years) evenly though the district. 3) Eliminate tracking.  --

There have been concerns expressed to me by SW Minneapolis parents that what I propose will hurt the educational programs that their children go to. For example, the newest regular classroom teacher at Kenwood was reportedly hired 8 years ago. It is likely that at least a few of the teachers currently at Kenwood would have to go elsewhere (to accommodate the creation of new teacher positions at Kenwood). I think we could figure out how to quickly carve out
positions for probationary teachers that would do no significant harm to the program at Kenwood in the short run, and might make it a stronger in the long run (i.e., 5 years out). When new teachers are mostly working with more seasoned
teachers, they can receive more effective supervision, and the students have not been getting much exposure to inexperienced teachers.

The district could find the extra money needed to allow most inexperienced teachers to become experienced teachers by making deep cuts in the administration budget, and by phasing out all but the college bound curriculum tracks
(schools can also be run cost-effectively on a smaller scale by eliminating tracking).

The district's leadership is not going to be able to put a lot of heat on legislators to increase the MPS budget unless the Minneapolis School District inspires broad popular support for the schools by taking bold steps to make a quality public education accessible to all on an equal basis.

All of our public schools should be good schools
Education is a right, not a privilege!

-Doug Mann, King Field
write in "Doug Mann" for school board