Minneapolis mayoral contenders zero in on education

/ 22 October 2013 / eunice

Maya Rao and Steve Brandt, Star Tribune, October 22, 2013 – Candidates for mayor of Minneapolis are zeroing in on education as never before, pledging to close the gap in achievement between white and minority students through a combination of extra funding, longer school days and years, and more flexibility in teacher layoffs.

The rhetoric flooding campaign speeches, debates and ads has caught even some education veterans off guard, particularly because the mayor has no power over the school system or its board.

“I’m surprised,” said Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. Still, she said, “Taking on the education and achievement gap is taking on a front seat that I believe is necessary in this country. A mayor cannot turn his or her back on the issue.”

Candidates disagree on some details of how a mayor can best advance education, the top concern of residents. But they concur that the winner in the Nov. 5 election must use the high profile of the office to pound the issue.

Here’s a look at some of their platforms and a reality check on them:

More time in schools? Costly

City Council Member Don Samuels and attorney Cam Winton have articulated the most reform-oriented proposals for schools.

Both say they’d advocate for longer school days and longer years. Samuels would add one hour daily and 20 days per year; Winton said he’d collaborate to determine how much, but he has a 10-hour day (not all of it at desks) and a 200-day year in mind. The current elementary day is 6½ hours long, and the school year is 176 days.

Their proposals would be costly. The district said that at current pay rates, it would cost more than $401,000 to extend the school day by one hour — and about $3.1 million to add a full day.

Winton said he would lobby the Legislature to pick up the bill.

Samuels said he’d seek evidence from smaller-scale tryouts that the extra time pays dividends on achievement, and then take those results to the state and public to justify the extra spending for other schools.

Critics say more seat time for students won’t yield gains by itself unless it’s accompanied by other pedagogical changes.

Council Member Betsy Hodges also has called repeatedly for longer school years and days, though she declined to offer specifics when questioned this month.

More federal money? Little leeway

Much of Hodges’ focus is on early-childhood development and prenatal health. She has suggested increasing access to Healthy Start, a program administered by the city with $888,320 from the federal government this year. It funds home visits to nearly 90 poor mothers through their child’s second birthday.

But Minneapolis has little leeway to expand the program because the federal government sets the amount of money it will give cities, according to the Health Department. A spokesman for Hodges’ campaign said in an e-mail that expansion of Healthy Start will take “many dedicated coalition partners,” including Minneapolis, and that the financial specifics would be a question for her planned Cradle-To-K Cabinet.

Hodges and other candidates also are promoting more access to child care. The Health Department said that funding for day care largely comes from other sources beyond city government, though the Youth Coordinating Board does address the quality of day care locally.

Layoffs by seniority or proficiency? Union resistant

Leading mayoral contenders generally agree that teaching ranks must become more racially diverse. They also say they prefer layoffs based on proficiency rather than seniority, although rising enrollment makes Minneapolis layoffs less likely.

Samuels, who has long pitched himself as “the education mayor,” testified in favor of a 2012 bill to end to layoffs that target new teachers first. It was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Winton said he’d encourage parents to ask the school board to negotiate a change in layoff rules, but if teachers resist, he’d call them out publicly. “Why are you willing to prioritize mediocre teachers over exceptional children?” he said he’d ask.

Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner, maintains that flexibility should be worked out at the bargaining table, not through legislation.

The teacher union opposes changes in the current “last-in, first-out” law governing layoffs, but has other proposals for making the teaching force more racially diverse.

Rewarding good teachers and good schools

Samuels proposed creating a mayoral-controlled private foundation to reward schools that improve student outcomes through innovative approaches. It also would serve as a lender to help failing schools turn around, but that money would require adopting some of the practices successful schools use.

Winton, for his part, advocates making bonuses available for strong teacher performance, with test scores part of the measure, but he said he’s open to discussing the type of test used. He said he’d make part of the mayor’s salary performance-based. Additionally, he wants to appoint some school board members, though that faces an uphill battle in a Legislature that rejected a mayoral appointment bill in 2012.

Andrew modifies statements

Earlier in the campaign, Andrew raised questions about charter schools and the Teach for America program, and he maintained a more traditional platform emphasizing the role of public schools.

He criticized Hodges for having supporters who endorse some initiatives being paid for by the conservative Koch brothers and said he opposed efforts by those supporting some of his rivals “to corporatize the schools.” That prompted Mayor R.T. Rybak to call his comments “reckless” and “deeply stupid.”

Now Andrew has said more recently that he is open to Teach for America and charter schools, clarifying that the city should learn from the good charter schools and shut down those that don’t work.

He called a news conference last week to lay out a more detailed education plan that — like Hodges’ — would expand the scope of the Youth Coordinating Board to provide more opportunities for children outside of the classroom. He would leverage private dollars to make that happen.

Andrew has recruited attorney and education advocate Mike Ciresi as well as Louise Sundin, an executive vice president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, to head his Mayor’s Council on Education. Ciresi has supported some of the initiatives that Andrew once criticized, advocating at the Legislature for the end of “last in, first out.” Additionally, he helped fund the campaign by Josh Reimnitz, a Teach for America advocate who set a spending record in his successful defeat last year of a union-backed candidate.