Sarah Lahm

Betsy DeVos and her school privatization agenda are no match for Michigan parents

Parents in DeVos’s backyard tell right-wing radicals, “No thank you to divisive, partisan agendas in schools.”

Culture war issues dressed as serious K-12 classroom concerns, such as trumped-up battles over critical race theory and gender identity, have become useful campaign fodder for the GOP in several key states.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

In Georgia, Republican lawmakers snuck last-minute language about transgender high school athletes into a more comprehensive education bill as their state’s legislative session was ending on April 5.

Democratic legislators immediately cried foul, noting that they were not even informed that the language had been added, and were only given 15 minutes to figure it out for themselves. There was no time to debate whether or not the provision, which could potentially result in transgender student-athletes being banned from participating on girls’ sports teams in public schools, was worth supporting in the first place.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who pushed for the legislation, has conveyed to state lawmakers that “ensuring fair play in girls’ sports” by excluding transgender athletes is a top priority for him this session, according to a local news report.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has become famous for signing a bill known as “Don’t Say Gay” into law that seeks to restrict when and how public school teachers can discuss gender and sexual identity issues with students from kindergarten to third grade. Predictably, this bill has become a headline grabber for DeSantis, who is running for reelection as governor this year and is often discussed as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

While these attacks on public education may generate endless PR for aspiring political candidates, parents in local school districts are often left to deal with the fallout. In the face of everything from tense and hyper-politicized school board meetings to attacks on teachers, some parents are getting organized and fighting back.

A perhaps unlikely place where parents have organized to defend their public schools and keep them inclusive and welcoming places for all children is in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan, the backyard of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos, whose hometown is Grand Rapids, is a billionaire with a penchant for funding pro-privatization school choice schemes, which she has pursued both personally and during her time in the Trump administration. As a member of Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos continually drew flack for her often flagrant disregard for public schools and the teachers who staff them.

These days, she is busily reasserting her role as a key player in Michigan politics, particularly when it comes to the dismantling of the state’s public education system. But although DeVos says she is a staunch supporter of “parent rights,” some parents affected by her agenda think she is dead wrong.

Culture Clash: Newcomers Bringing Liberal Viewpoints to Conservative Christian Community

When Becky Olson and her husband first became parents nearly a decade ago, they were living in Chicago. As their two children neared kindergarten age, they found themselves at a crossroads.

“We wondered if we should stay in the city or move to the suburbs,” she told Our Schools, as she and her husband contemplated the kind of school community they wanted for their young family. Eventually, they decided to move to a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the cost of living is lower than it is in Chicago, and the public schools are well-regarded.

Olson is now the parent of a second grader and a soon-to-be kindergartner in the Forest Hills Public Schools District, which pulls in kids from several surrounding communities in the greater Grand Rapids area. Forest Hills is considered a “destination district,” Olson said, thanks to its strong reputation and ability to attract young professionals and their families.

Therein lies a problem, perhaps. Olson acknowledged that new residents like herself—who may bring more liberal viewpoints with them—are moving to Grand Rapids in search of affordable homes and stable public schools, leading to something of a culture clash.

“This area has always been very conservative,” she noted, thanks in large part to the longstanding presence of the Christian Reformed Church. Betsy DeVos and her family are members of the church, like many other Western Michigan residents with Dutch roots, and it seems impossible to imagine Grand Rapids not being under the influence of either the DeVoses or their church.

This topic has been given a close examination by journalists Kristina Rizga and Emily DeRuy. Writing for the Atlantic in 2017, DeRuy explored the way DeVos’s religious and cultural roots inform her belief that public funding for education should be extended to private schools, including those that adhere to nonsecular teachings.

Rizga’s piece for Mother Jones in 2017 offered a deeper dive into the way DeVos has used her significant financial resources as a means to push against the separation of church and state in the public education system, mainly by continuously supporting attempts to make school voucher policies a reality.

What is currently happening in Grand Rapids and Forest Hills Public Schools is, however, bigger than just the DeVos family and their religious leanings, although such factors are a potent ingredient in what Olson and her fellow public school advocates have been fighting against.

Republican/Far-Right Attacks on Public Education

Olson said she first noticed trouble brewing in Forest Hills Public Schools at a March 2021 school board meeting. Such meetings are “normally sleepy,” she said, although she quickly learned what others around the country have also come to realize lately—school board meetings have reemerged as a key battleground in the current right-wing assault on public education and democratic governance.

Public education in the United States has frequently been a target of right-wing grievance, and flare-ups over what should be taught and who should do the teaching have always taken place. In the early 1990s, for example, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition led a push to take over school boards and usher in a new era of conservative Republican candidacies centered around so-called family values.

At the March 2021 meeting, Olson recalled conflict bubbling up around recent attempts by some community members to bring more racial equity and diversity to Forest Hills Public Schools. In response, a group of “concerned, Christian parents” signed in to the online meeting, she said, to protest the district’s support for an optional, diversity-focused program known as the Global Learners Initiative.

Local media coverage of the meeting documented the controversy surrounding the Global Learners Initiative and noted that some parents consider it evidence of the school district’s “drastic critical race theory and transgender policies.”

The program, however, didn’t arise out of thin air. Olson said it was created in response to recent troubling incidents, including the time in 2016 when a handful of students brought Trump and Betsy Ross flags—both have been linked to racism and white nationalism—to a school football game that was hosted by a predominantly Black team. Still, the initiative included the kind of buzzwords, such as equity and inclusion, that have inflamed conservative activists across the country.

It didn’t take long for the dust-up over the Global Learners Initiative to snowball into a full-fledged attack on Forest Hills and its school board, complete with a recall campaign aimed at board members that was led by Stefanie Boone—a local parent with her own designs on becoming an elected official.

Critical Race Theory Fever

Boone is currently vying to become a commissioner in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids. Her public Facebook page lists her as a Republican/conservative candidate running for office and includes frequent posts attacking “wokeism,” as well as a slew of issues ranging from mask mandates to abortion rights policies.

She is also an outspoken critic of Forest Hills Public Schools, where several of her children are students.

In a Facebook post from March 22, Boone said she had attended more than 50 school board meetings in and around Forest Hills since 2020, in alignment with other parents who are “tired of the liberal narrative of CRT/DEI/SEL being pushed on our children and in our workplaces.” She is also affiliated with a political action committee called Forest Hills for JUST Education, which filed a very expensive public information request against the local school district.

The acronyms stand for a grab bag of policies that are perceived as part of a liberal agenda and are supposedly running amok in public schools, according to right-wing political candidates and think tanks. The list of these liberal policies includes critical race theory (CRT); diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEL); and social-emotional learning (SEL).

All three are red meat for Republican activists who perhaps need little convincing that public schools are a threat to be managed with vigilance, before another generation of students supposedly falls under the spell of liberal indoctrination.

Boone is not the only would-be Michigan politician using such terms these days. The state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is up for reelection this year. One of her potential opponents running in the Republican primary, Ryan D. Kelley, has made battling critical race theory and other polarizing school-based issues a central tenet of his campaign.

He even showed up at a Forest Hills Public Schools board meeting in February, as outlined in a Michigan Advance article. Some parents in attendance objected to Kelley’s presence, noting that the meeting felt like a campaign event that had nothing to do with actual Forest Hills concerns. (Kelley does not have children in the Forest Hills Public Schools District.)

Reporter Allison Donahue’s article in the Michigan Advance described Kelley as railing against the same red herrings, from critical race theory to diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, that Boone has vociferously objected to.

The frequent use of these terms by people like Boone and Kelley caught Olson’s eye and helped lead her down her own path of resistance.

Parents Fight Back to Protect the Public School System

After the March 2021 school board meeting, Olson began to notice a common thread among those who were speaking out against Forest Hills Public Schools.

In a matter of weeks, she said, attacks against the school district and its board members began ramping up—alongside a new, DeVos-backed push for school vouchers in Michigan.

The new campaign is called Let Michigan Kids Learn, and it aims to gather 500,000 signatures on a petition designed to allow public education dollars to go toward “student opportunity scholarships” (a less offensive term used to refer to school vouchers) in the state. If it gets passed, K-12 education in Michigan would turn into a choice-based marketplace that includes religious schools.

DeVos donated $400,000 to this petition drive and has participated publicly in the organization’s events. Although students’ needs are supposedly the group’s main concern, the Let Michigan Kids Learn website prominently states an intention to “take the power away from the unions, away from the governor, and put it in the hands of parents.”

If Olson and her fellow Forest Hills defenders are any indication, though, not all Michigan parents are falling for this latest effort to pit them against teachers, unions, and public schools in general.

In the face of persistent attacks on their local school districts, Olson and a network of other parents came together to create their own grassroots groups to defend the public education system. There is the Support Forest Hills Public Schools group spearheaded by Olson and others, and another one for a nearby district called Support Lowell Area Schools.

“We have had to learn on the fly,” Olson said, about how to set up their own political action committee or track campaign finance reports to find out who is funding groups like Let Michigan Kids Learn.

So far, they appear to have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. The Support Forest Hills Public Schools group is focused on combating “partisan and manufactured attacks” on public education, according to the group’s website, and is working on disseminating information about this through blog posts and other forms of information sharing.

In doing so, members of this group helped successfully thwart Boone’s attempt to recall five school board members—a move Olson said would have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Additionally, in the absence of any deep-pocketed donors like the DeVos family, the Support Forest Hills Public Schools group has set up an online store selling yard signs and car decals in order to fund their efforts. Each item for sale includes a brightly colored declaration of love for the local school district and its staff members.

Maintain Hope

Erin Foltz is a parent in the Lowell Area Schools district near Grand Rapids. She is also a key force behind the grassroots group that has sprouted up to support this district, which has faced its own school board recall attempt recently. In Foltz’s view, the attacks being levied against the Lowell school district are not unique.

“Many school districts across the nation are currently experiencing the emergence of extremely politicized groups,” she told Our Schools. And these groups are bent on sowing “doubt in the minds of community members and parents” about their kids’ teachers and school administrators, Foltz said.

She said that she has witnessed protesters from outside of Lowell come to the town’s school board meetings and hurl allegations at board members, including now-familiar accusations about all the “liberal agendas” that are supposedly at play in the district. Every time there is a meeting, Foltz said, there is a new round of fearmongering from agitators.

“These attacks seem orchestrated to maintain a steady stream of shock value,” in Foltz’s estimation, as a means to “keep their side engaged and enraged, and to keep the opposition (other parents like us, the board of education, teachers, and administrators) exhausted and weary,” she said. (Republican senators deployed similar tactics during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings.)

Still, Foltz is not ready to give up. Getting organized, informed, and engaged has proven to be a strong line of defense for her, Olson, and their fellow pro-public school activists. “If other parents are faced with these divisive, contradictory attacks in their school districts, I would say not to give up hope,” Foltz said.

It is important to remember, she added, that there are typically many more people who support public education and want to hold schools accountable without destroying them. Find them, Foltz advised, and then join forces to “collectively say no thank you to divisive, partisan agendas in schools.”

Author Bio: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

Minneapolis teacher strike a reminder of the threats facing American public education

Teachers ended a nearly three-week strike, citing advances in pay and working conditions for many members. But more work remains.

When Minneapolis high school seniors Dom Newell and Emi Gaçaj head off to college this fall, they will have some impressive credentials to share with their fellow classmates.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

In addition to having strong academic records—the kind needed to get into Wiley College in Texas and Columbia University in New York, where Newell and Gaçaj are respectively headed—they will also be able to share stories of the activism they engaged in during the recent Minneapolis teachers strike.

Why Minneapolis Teachers Went on Strike

On March 8, the thousands of teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) who make up the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) walked off the job for the first time since 1970 after contract negotiations with the Minneapolis Public Schools failed. Bread-and-butter union issues, including class size caps and stagnant pay, were at the heart of the dispute, along with debates over how best to recruit and retain teachers of color in Minneapolis.

The strike lasted for nearly three weeks. On March 25, a tentative agreement was reached between the union and the school district, and students and teachers were both back in the classroom by March 29.

This labor dispute puts the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers squarely in line with their counterparts in many other cities and states. In 2022 alone, teachers in districts that stretch from Sacramento to the Chicago area have gone on strike to protest ongoing contract stalemates and onerous working conditions.

National Education Association President Becky Pringle noted recently that school districts have the requisite resources to address the issues being raised through these teachers strikes, but are often unwilling to spend it to meet these pertinent demands. In an interview with Vox, Pringle questioned what came first: a purposeful underfunding of schools or the districts’ claims that the funds they have cannot be utilized to provide children with the support they need in classrooms. She told Vox that a lack of funding “is not an excuse that we [teachers] are willing to tolerate.”

Funding Crunch for Public Schools in Minnesota

In Minnesota, this dynamic is evident. Beginning in the early 2000s, state tax revenue for public education has shrunk while the demands on teachers, students, and school districts have dramatically increased—especially in the area of unfunded mandates for special education and English language services.

For the Minneapolis Public Schools, this means the district must pull millions of dollars out of its general education fund in order to cover the cost of educating all students in accordance with the law.

The process of drawing from one pot of money to cover required but unfunded services is known as a cross-subsidy, and it is a situation made worse by the fact that public school districts, like Minneapolis’, must also pay for the special education services that local charter schools and open enrollment programs provide. In recent years, that dollar amount has risen above $22 million.

Although education funding quagmires such as this are not new, the lack of adequate resources is an especially bitter pill to swallow in Minneapolis lately, as Minnesota lawmakers are currently wrestling with how to spend an unexpectedly large budget surplus that now exceeds $9 billion.

So far, there has been no indication that state legislators will use that money to fully fund public education, either in Minneapolis or across the state. This doesn’t mean the Minneapolis Public Schools should be left off the hook.

Greta Callahan is president of the teacher chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and has repeatedly argued, for example, that school district officials are sitting on millions in federal COVID-19 relief funds that should instead be spent on the immediate needs of teachers, support staffers, and students.

Student Solidarity With Teachers

For Newell and Gaçaj, the overall lack of investment in Minneapolis’ public schools has galvanized their burgeoning political activism and allowed them to turn lessons learned in the classroom into action on behalf of their teachers and fellow students.

When reached by phone for an interview recently, Newell and Gaçaj were inside a classroom at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, working on a project related to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“We are studying this in school” while also participating outside of school in nonviolent protests, Gaçaj noted. Newell also mentioned that, as a Black student, he’s grown up hearing about the Civil Rights era and the actions activists engaged in then to bring about monumental change.

These history lessons have helped Newell understand how to support striking educators through direct action, he says. So far, the efforts of the Coalition of Student Leaders, which both of them are part of, have been pretty remarkable. One example includes the sit-in coalition members held at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters as the strike dragged on.

While there, more than 100 students sat on the floor of the headquarters’ entrance area, chanting, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” along with other pro-strike messages.

Newell said they had hoped their actions might lead to an invitation from district officials to meet. But, he noted, they were initially rebuffed; they were finally granted an audience with administrator Eric Moore.

“He was dismissive of our concerns and questions,” said Newell, who added that Superintendent Ed Graff was nowhere to be found.

On March 29, the day students returned to the classroom, members of the coalition took over a Minneapolis school board meeting to protest a decision that had been made to extend the school year into late June in order to make up for days lost to the strike.

As students chanted against this decision and implored Graff and his board members to rethink the additional days, Graff walked out of the meeting. The next day, he announced his resignation from the district.

While Newell and Gaçaj claim no direct credit for Graff’s decision to leave Minneapolis when his contract expires in June, they did note that neither his departure nor the end of the strike means their work is over.

As evidence, they shared a list of demands that have yet to be met, including the “uplifting of historically underfunded schools” and an overall improvement in the way students of color are treated in the district.

Spreading Awareness of Shocking Teacher Treatment via Tweet

Kaytie Kamphoff is an inclusion special education English teacher at Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School. She also has an active presence on Twitter, where she goes by the handle @whatMsKsaid.

For Kamphoff, seeing students, parents, and community members hosting sit-ins, joining educators on the picket line, and otherwise expressing solidarity with those on strike has been very rewarding. When she first joined Twitter in 2019, she did so out of a desire to communicate about public education with a wider network of people.

Now, she said, that effort is paying off.

“I have learned that I am a people connector,” Kamphoff stated, and the connections she wants to make involve engaging more community members in the fight to save public education—before, during, and after the Minneapolis educators strike.

Kamphoff began her teaching career in Milwaukee from 2007 to 2011, and her last year there coincided with former Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bludgeoning of Wisconsin’s public education system. When Walker pushed hard against teachers unions, members descended on Wisconsin’s state capitol in protest. With help from a research librarian friend, Kamphoff said she began learning about some of the forces behind Walker’s actions.

Those forces, Kamphoff found, included right-wing outfits such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, where very wealthy private citizens have used their personal wealth and influence as a weapon against public services, including education.

The situation in Wisconsin became so dire that Kamphoff said more experienced teachers who couldn’t easily switch jobs warned her to leave the state and pursue a career in education elsewhere. And so she returned to her home state of Minnesota and eventually secured a teaching position in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Kamphoff then began putting her background knowledge and experience—as well as her natural organizing skills—to use.

When it became clear in early March that MFT was going on strike, Kamphoff had a network of supportive parents and community members to tap into. She said she gained 1,500 Twitter followers just before the strike began and used her platform to make parents and community members aware of the issues prompting educators to walk off the job.

Many were shocked to learn, for example, that district ESPs have been making starting salaries of around $24,000 per year while also paying health insurance premiums at the same rate as district administrators, who earn six-figure salaries.

Such information has opened the public’s eyes to what is going on in schools, Kamphoff said, and it has helped shine a light on the gap between the Minneapolis Public Schools’ stated values and how the district is actually being managed.

“District administrators pay lip service to things like social-emotional learning, restorative practices, and equity,” she stated, but they “don’t do these things themselves.” A key sticking point for her is the way ESPs have been grossly underpaid. And, since many ESPs live in Minneapolis and send their children to the city’s public schools, that amounts to the district adding to its own population of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

A week after the strike ended, Kamphoff acknowledged that MFT members didn’t get everything they were hoping for from the strike. Teacher salaries in Minneapolis are lower than those in many neighboring districts, and that doesn’t appear to have changed much under the union’s new contract.

Still, Kamphoff and others have said that the ESPs did win a better deal from the district, thanks to the strike. Many will now be making salaries much closer to the union’s goal of $35,000 per year, and there are new district agreements in place regarding the retention of teachers of color.

“We fought for ESPs, and now we have more bargaining power for our next contract negotiations,” Kamphoff said.

What the Strike Means Beyond the Minneapolis Public Schools

Macks Hopland has been working in Minneapolis as an ESP for five years. When asked about his thoughts on the outcome of the strike, he expressed some misgivings.

Yes, he acknowledged, the strike brought some victories, mainly seen in the way communities rallied around the picket lines and offered support to educators. Still, he said he would not call the settlement that ended the strike a win for ESPs.

Most ESPs will not get a salary boost that matches the current inflation rate (which is now 8.5 percent), Hopland stated, and this isn’t just a problem for individual employees. During his time in the Minneapolis Public Schools, there has been a chronic shortage of ESPs due to long-standing wage erosion.

Lower wages have meant fewer people can afford to work as ESPs, which sets up a cycle of understaffing, high turnover, and more stress for both students and the staffers who have decided to keep their classroom positions despite the low pay. This all adds up to an austerity-driven crisis for the students and staff members left behind to continually do more with less.

In Hopland’s view, this situation isn’t one that can be easily resolved through contract negotiations. Instead, he thinks it requires a deeper analysis of who really holds the power when it comes to public education. To try to answer this, Hopland published a Facebook post about some of the behind-the-scenes players who have an outsized impact on the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Hopland rooted his analysis in conversations he had with colleagues while on the picket line. Who, he wanted to know, did people think was really pulling the strings in the Minneapolis Public Schools’ hard-line negotiations with teachers and support staffers?

It is far too simple to only blame the district’s negotiating team or even its top administrator, he concluded. “The superintendent isn’t some stand-alone autonomous agent,” Hopland wrote, “but rather is just another gear, even if a large one, in the larger clockwork.”

The larger clockwork at play in Minneapolis will be recognizable to public education advocates across the country.

Wealthy individuals and corporations typically want to avoid paying more taxes, and public education is among the most costly segments of municipal budgets, Hopland wrote. For at least two decades, those wishing to reduce the tax burden presented by public schools have been lobbying for a grab bag of destructive neoliberal education policies, including the promotion of school choice schemes.

The Minneapolis Foundation does a lot of that work in the city. It is a century-old philanthropic fund that pulls in donations from some of the wealthiest, most established corporate and family foundations in Minnesota. In turn, it has been at the forefront of underwriting Minneapolis’ expansive charter school sector.

Despite the proliferation of school options for families, there remains only one pot of taxpayer-funded education dollars, and the billions of dollars provided to charter schools by the federal government seem to have been squandered over the years, leaving public schools with even fewer resources. Fewer tax dollars split among more public schools (charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed) have not added up to better outcomes for most students and educators, either locally or nationally.

It is clear that the recent Minneapolis teachers strike was about much more than class size limits or salary bumps, in other words.

Although some contract-based victories were won on behalf of MFT members, as outlined effectively by Eric Blanc in a recent Jacobin piece, public education in Minneapolis still faces an existential threat. For evidence, look no further than the district’s shrinking enrollment numbers.

Still, Hopland, Kamphoff, and the members of the Coalition of Student Leaders all mentioned the increase in political activism and awareness surrounding public education as a key highlight of the strike, and one they are all dedicated to upholding.

“Minneapolis parents, students, and educators are so awesome,” Kamphoff said. The way people came together on the picket line recently led her to conclude that “once we see each other’s humanity, we will help each other.”

Author Bio: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

Why a state known for charter schools may be turning in a different direction

Minnesota is widely known as the land of 10,000 lakes—actually, there are more than 10,000. But the state, which was the first in the nation to pass a charter school law in 1991, could also be described as the land of school choice. Beyond charters, Minnesota is also home to the nation's first comprehensive open enrollment law, dating back to the late 1980s, which allows K-12 students to attend any public school in a district of their choice, provided there is space in the host district.

While the abundance of lakes covering the state was the result of a natural process, it would be hard to describe the rapid growth of charter schools and school choice in the North Star State as some sort of natural occurrence, driven solely by parents and teachers hungry for alternative learning environments. But Minnesota—as well as many other states and the federal government—is awakening to another approach to school improvement that is expanding, from the ground up, in a more natural way: the full-service community schools model.

In contrast to charter schools and other market-based approaches to school improvement, full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about lifting up students and the communities they live in, rather than pitting schools against one another in the interest of greater choice and competition.

Why Charters and Choice?

An overview of Minnesota's groundbreaking charter school legislation refers to it as an attempt to fund "results-oriented, student-centered public schools." This is an optimistic assessment of the Minnesota law that touches on the educational aspirations that the charter schools system carries, but it entirely sidesteps another important aspect of the system: the connection between charter schools and the privatization of public education.

This push to privatize the nation's public school system has been made possible in large part by the federal government. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration readily embraced the concept of school choice by promising to close the "worst performing schools," among other things, while seeking millions in expansion funds for the growing charter school sector. These efforts snowballed under former President George W. Bush, who funneled more than $1 billion toward supporting charter schools, often at the expense of public school districts.

Former President Barack Obama's administration then continued along this path by pumping billions of additional taxpayer dollars into the hands of charter school operators around the country, thanks to the pro-school choice efforts by Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Wealthy philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also jumped aboard the school choice train, directing millions of dollars toward the privatization of public education in the United States. The interests of both philanthropists and the federal government were most clearly united under former President Donald Trump's leadership, when billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos became the secretary of education.

Minnesota's "first in the nation" charter school law also opened the door to charter school legislation in other states. Since the 2005-2006 school year, charter school enrollment has more than tripled; today, more than 3 million students attend such schools across the country. Only a handful of small, less-populated states, such as Nebraska, Vermont, and North and South Dakota, do not allow charter schools.

In Minnesota, there are currently 180 privately run, publicly funded charter schools, enrolling more than 60,000 students in grades K-12.

Similarly, open enrollment policies have exploded since Minnesota pioneered that option, and now nearly all states offer some sort of intra- and inter-district transfer option.

School reform models built around competition and choice have led to greater disruption in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago, where former Mayor Rahm Emanuel oversaw the shuttering of dozens of neighborhood schools amid a boom in the local charter school market.

In Minnesota, the Saint Paul Public Schools district has been left gasping for air as school choice schemes continue to wreak havoc on the district's enrollment numbers and, subsequently, its finances.

This district is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, if not the nation, with approximately 35,000 students representing a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds of the district's students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and almost 300 students in the district are listed as being homeless.

As a result of more school choice, in 2017, 14,000 school-age children living in the city were not enrolled in the Saint Paul Public Schools district. Instead, they either attended a charter school in or near the city or chose to open-enroll into a neighboring school district.

Just two years later, in 2019, the exodus of families had risen to more than 16,000. Today, more than one-third of all students living in Saint Paul do not attend Saint Paul Public Schools, leaving the district in a constant state of contraction.

The district's lagging enrollment numbers can be attributed to shrinking birthrates and "a rise in school choice options," according to a recent article by Star Tribune reporter Anthony Lonetree.

As a consequence of shrinking enrollments, district officials recently outlined a reorganization proposal that calls for the closure of eight schools by the fall of 2022 "under a consolidation plan," in an attempt to offload expensive infrastructure costs and improve academic options for students.

Charter school options abound in and around Saint Paul, and many represent the worst effects that come with applying unregulated, market-based reforms to public education.

There's the handful of white flight charter schools within the city limits, for example, that have long waiting lists and offer exclusive programming options, such as Great River School (a Montessori school), Nova Classical Academy, and the Twin Cities German Immersion School. On the flip side of this are racially and economically isolated Saint Paul charter schools such as Hmong College Prep Academy, where according to state data 98 percent of the students enrolled are Asian and nearly 80 percent live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines.

Hmong College Prep Academy has been in the news recently, thanks to a scandal that was dubbed a "hedge fund fiasco" by the Pioneer Press. The school is run by a husband-and-wife administrative team who invested $5 million of taxpayer money in a hedge fund, hoping it would provide a return that would help pay for the school's expansion plans. Instead, the hedge fund investment apparently lost $4.3 million, leading to calls for the school's superintendent, Christianna Hang, to be fired—something school officials refused to do. Hang finally submitted her resignation in late October.

In short, the market-based approach to education reform that Minnesota helped pioneer has caused a great deal of disruption, segregation and chaos. In a Hunger Games-type setting, districts and charter schools have been forced to compete for students with white, middle and upper class students and families largely coming out on top.

The end result, critics allege, is an increasingly segregated public education landscape across the state, with no widespread boost in student outcomes to show for it.

An Alternative to Choice and Competition

Thirty years after Minnesota's charter school and open enrollment laws ushered in a mostly unregulated era of school choice, many states—including Minnesota—and federal officials may be turning their attention to the reform model offered by full-service community schools.

Full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about much more than students' standardized test scores or the number of AP classes a school offers. Instead, this model seeks to reposition schools as community resource centers that also provide academic instruction to K-12, or even Pre-K-12, students.

In Minnesota, a handful of districts have adopted this model, often with impressive results.

The state's longest running full-service community schools implementation is in Brooklyn Center, a very diverse suburb just north of Minneapolis. Since 2009, the city's public school district has operated under the full-service model, providing such things as counseling and medical and dental services alongside the traditional academic offerings of the school system.

In recent months, Brooklyn Center's community schools approach has been put to the test, due to both the ongoing pandemic and the unrest that erupted after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. In April 2021, as Chauvin's murder trial was underway a few miles away in downtown Minneapolis, a white Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed a young Black man named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.

This layering of trauma upon trauma might have broken the Brooklyn Center community apart, as large protests soon took place outside the city's police headquarters and caused disruption among residents—many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees. During this turmoil, school district staffers, already familiar with the needs of their community, were able to quickly mobilize resources on behalf of Brooklyn Center students and families thanks to the existing full-service community schools model.

It's not just urban districts like Brooklyn Center that have benefited from this approach. In rural Deer River, Minnesota—where more than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless—the school district adopted the full-service model in recent years, thanks to startup grants from state and federal funding sources.

Staff in Deer River are reportedly very happy with the full-service model, which allowed them to pivot during the pandemic and provide food, transportation services and other community-specific needs. A local media outlet even noted that the community schools approach enabled school district employees to survey families during the COVID-19 shutdown and provide them with things such as fishing poles and bikes to help them get through this challenging time.

Several other districts across the United States, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Durham, North Carolina, have also adopted the full-service community schools approach, which is built around sharing power and uplifting communities rather than closing failing schools and shuttling students out of their neighborhoods through open-enrollment or charter school options.

Community Schools Approach Is on the Rise

Disrupting public education through the proliferation of school choice schemes, including charter schools, has long been the preferred education reform model for politicians and wealthy philanthropists in the United States, and while the charter school industry has been able to score billions in federal funding, the full-service community schools model has instead been relegated to the sidelines.

That's starting to change.

In February 2021, a coalition of education advocacy groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an open letter to congressional leaders asking that more federal dollars be spent on full-service community schools. Most recently, the letter notes, Congress allocated $30 million in funding for such schools nationwide, a number the coalition deemed far too low to meet the "need and demand for this strategy."

Now, the Biden administration has proposed dramatically bumping this funding up to $443 million, based on the support this model has received from people such as the current U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. While giving input to Congress on behalf of Biden's proposed budget for the Department of Education, Cardona explained that full-service community schools honor the "role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods" and are designed to help students achieve academically by making sure their needs—for food, counseling, relationships, or a new pair of eyeglasses, and so on—are also being met.

If the Biden administration succeeds in directing millions more in funding toward full-service community schools, it might not be too late to save public schools, in Minnesota and across the country.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

How the increasingly popular community schools model is boosting rural America

The often hidden reality of rural schools in America is that a higher percentage of students in rural areas live in poverty compared to metro school districts, according to a 2021 profile of rural schools done by Ohio teacher Daniel Bailey for Edutopia. These students also tend to face unique challenges, including limited access to medical care and ongoing fallout from the opioid crisis that has significantly impacted rural communities across the country.

"Rural districts are an often-overlooked part of the complex American education system," Bailey noted, which is a point that was also echoed in a 2020 article by New York Times education reporter Erica Green, who wrote that despite the fact that one in seven U.S. students attends school in a rural district, these often geographically large school systems have "long been considered the most underfunded and ignored in the country."

These revelations about rural schools aren't news to Deanna Hron, a longtime employee of the Deer River, Minnesota, school system, who is well aware of the challenges facing rural students. When she began her career in Deer River in the 1980s, working as an elementary school teacher, she observed that many of her young students showed up to school without their basic needs being met, including essentials such as dental care, food, and reliable transportation.

She soon realized that it wouldn't be possible to meet all those needs solely within the classroom and did what she could to help students and families access resources within the town of Deer River and Itasca County, its home base.

These days, Hron is largely credited by colleagues with being the life force behind the district's 2016 adoption of a full-service community schools model. Since then, Deer River students and staffers have had more tools in place through this community schools approach, which prioritizes not only the academic needs of kids but also the social, emotional, and physical well-being of the whole community.

Adoptions of the community schools model are often associated with urban school systems such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati, but this approach offers substantial benefits for rural districts whose needs are often overlooked by politicians and policymakers.

A quick glance at demographic data for the Deer River school district indicates that the need for such comprehensive support clearly exists.

Deer River Public Schools is a rural district serving approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota. The town of Deer River has an equal number of residents—around 900—but the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles, boosting both its enrollment numbers and the complexity of issues the school district has to tackle.

Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and is anchored by the breathtaking expanse of Leech Lake, which boasts nearly 200 miles of picturesque shoreline.

Approximately one-third of Deer River's student population is Native American, and therefore these students belong to a demographic group that is known to be consistently underserved by Minnesota's public schools.

More than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless. On top of that, almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.

It's numbers like these, along with the faces and names behind them, that prompted Hron and her fellow Deer River staffers to seek access to more resources through the community schools approach, an effort that was already showing promise in the nearby Duluth public school system.

'Fishing Poles, Beds, and Bikes'

"The momentum for the full-service model started five or six years ago," Hron says, right after district employees successfully lobbied the community for a $10.5 million referendum.

The injection of taxpayer dollars was needed to upgrade the town's elementary school, and, in order to sweeten the pot, Hron and her colleagues decided to pitch the referendum as a way to add more services to the school building.

"We included a senior center and an early childhood wing in our plans," she says, noting that these additions made the project "easier to sell to the public."

It also helped lay the groundwork for what came next: a grant to bring the full-service community schools model to Deer River. In 2015, the Minnesota state legislature authorized $500,000 in one-time startup funds for school districts interested in exploring the community schools approach, and Hron and other Deer River employees jumped at the chance to bring even more services to area students and their families.

The district's longtime superintendent, Matt Grose, was supportive of the idea, Hron recalls, and had already helped bring mental health services to the area's schools. The statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota, also pitched in with programmatic support and startup resources.

Although there was support for the full-service model in Deer River, thanks in large part to Grose's leadership, it wasn't always easy to get it off the ground. For one thing, while money from the initial implementation grant lasted eight months in Deer River and helped put the full-service community schools model in place, it wasn't enough to sustain it.

District personnel then used some general education fund dollars to cover costs associated with the program's implementation until a federal grant opportunity arose in 2019. The Department of Education authorized grants worth millions of dollars for full-service community schools throughout the U.S. that year, and, while Deer River applied but wasn't selected then, in 2020 the district did receive a five-year grant worth $2.2 million.

The money was a "pie in the sky" dream, says Hron's colleague, Betsy Johnson, and was made all the more substantial thanks to an additional $2.4 million from area organizations such as the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Johnson has worked in the Deer River area since 2007, mostly through a public health program operated by the University of Minnesota Extension. With a background in health and nutrition, Johnson was already serving on the board of Deer River's full-service community schools, when she laughingly says she "failed at retirement" and started working as a grant project manager for the district.

In her role, Johnson also serves as the family resource coordinator, connecting families to the various services available to them through the full-service community schools model.

These services have included access to essential resources during the pandemic, when Deer River staff members delivered groceries to families in need and conducted home visits to make sure students—especially those who were not regularly attending online learning classes—were okay.

An article in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review highlighted Deer River's full-service model, noting how staff provided other specific items requested by families during the COVID-19 shutdown, including "fishing poles, beds, and bikes."

'I Was One of Those Kids'

Positions like the one Johnson holds are possible thanks to the 2020 federal grant Deer River won, and the money also allowed the district to expand this model to the high school level.

There, 2015 Deer River High School graduate Kole Schultz acts as the site coordinator, working directly with students to keep them connected and on track. There is an Anishinaabe education room in the school that is geared toward the needs of the school's Native American students, who may want a place of their own where they can find a friendly face or perhaps an afterschool snack or two.

"I was one of those kids, and I know how delicate things can be," Schultz says, when thinking of the issues faced by these kids, including generational trauma and limited access to modern-day essentials such as consistent broadband services. Schultz left Deer River after graduation but came back when he saw an opportunity, through the site coordinator position, to "help and give back."

The pandemic is making his on-site support more necessary than ever.

In 2020, COVID-19 hit Deer River hard, exacerbating longstanding challenges to the area's health care system—thanks, in part, to the ongoing opioid epidemic—and disrupting the vital cashflow brought to the area through its tourism industry.

The school district has also been grappling with fallout from the shutdown of in-person learning, which Johnson says led to a rise in chronic absenteeism among students. Although the district was able to implement hybrid instruction for most of the 2020-2021 school year, meaning students were not required to be online full time, she estimates that around 30 percent of kids did not consistently show up to school throughout the year.

This happened across the country, too, with Education Week reporting that student absenteeism rates doubled during the pandemic. These disruptions are likely to continue into the 2021 school year in Deer River and elsewhere, as the spread of the Delta variant casts an uncertain light on back-to-school plans.

'Heading Into a Challenging New Year'

"We are heading into a challenging new year," Johnson acknowledges. It will be important to reestablish routines and expectations, she notes, while also stating that many area families are dealing with not only the pandemic but also an uptick in drug overdoses and suicides.

What she wants most for her community is for them to know that the full-service community schools model is intended to be a source of support for everyone in the area, no matter what they might need. Hron remembers a kindergartner whose academic work soared after she received much-needed on-site dental care. Johnson recalls helping an elderly woman access Depend undergarments when she couldn't get to the store on her own.

These seemingly small services are actually essential, both women note, especially in a far-reaching rural community like Deer River. The nearest store might be a 10 or 15-minute drive away, and that store is likely to be a convenience store—not a cheaper, more robustly stocked grocery outlet. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that many area residents do not have a reliable car at their disposal.

"My hope is that our vision for this full-service community school includes all people in [the] Deer River [district] who might need something," Johnson states.

She and her fellow staff members appear to be off to a good start, and the model they've implemented could serve as an example of the community-changing potential of the full-service community schools in both urban and rural districts.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

How schools can address their community’s deep trauma

Sizi Goyah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, is overflowing with enthusiasm these days.

It's summer, and students from Brooklyn Center Community Schools, where he teaches, have been spending their days outside, learning about drones and other hands-on science and technology topics.

"They are seeing engineering coming to life," Goyah says happily, noting that the summer program he's part of is a way to help students re-engage in learning after the disruptions caused by COVID-19 shutdowns.

The summer school option has been brought to life with help from local partners that work alongside Brooklyn Center Community Schools, an approach that is standard practice for this suburban school district.

That's because the district operates under a full-service community school model and is structured around close collaboration between the school system and area resources. This includes not only support for summer school courses but also a whole range of on-site and community-based initiatives.

For Goyah, who says he is "absolutely looking forward" to returning to school in person this fall, the community school model in Brooklyn Center has been an enduring source of stability.

"As a teacher, I see the value in being a community school, and that's why I've stayed in Brooklyn Center for so long," he noted, as he embarks on his 10th year in the district.

The benefit of having a community-centered school dedicated to addressing more than just students' academic needs came into sharp focus in April 2021.

That's when a young Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center. Wright's death brought more trauma to a community that was already reeling from racial strife, particularly after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in nearby Minneapolis.

Thanks to the existing full-service model, Goyah recalls, Brooklyn Center school staff members and supporters were able to swiftly jump into action on behalf of community members who were struggling with Wright's killing and the unrest that followed.

What Full-Service Community Schools Are Especially Equipped to Do

Offering assistance in a time of crisis is something full-service community schools may be especially equipped to do. That's because they are intended to exist as a hub for the community, with a mission to serve students, staff, and families in a comprehensive manner.

This means districts such as Brooklyn Center, which adopted the model in 2009, provide much more than academic instruction to students.

Instead, Brooklyn Center schools partner with local providers in order to ensure students' needs, as well as those of the wider community, are being met as conveniently and quickly as possible.

In Goyah's view, the benefits of this model are numerous. It delivers a variety of services to students, staff, families, and the broader community, including appointments for mental health counseling, a physical, or an eye exam, for example, that can be scheduled during the school day.

Such access "removes barriers," he states, while pointing out that students in need of eyeglasses can get both the exam and the prescription filled at school, for free.

This expanded view of education is especially important considering the demographics of Brooklyn Center and its public school district. Nearly 75 percent of the 2,300 K-12 students who attend the schools in the district live in poverty, according to the federal criteria.

An 'Educational Equity-Focused Model'

When Wright was killed in April, his death brought renewed attention to the challenges Brooklyn Center is facing, particularly in racial and economic terms. As National Public Radio reporter Becky Sullivan noted, it is Minnesota's "most diverse city," thanks in part to a steep and recent decline in the number of white residents.

While white and middle-class residents have moved away from Brooklyn Center—partially because decent-paying jobs have also left the area—immigrants and people living in poverty have moved in.

Sullivan's piece for NPR contains two stark data points: As the median income "dropped more than 16 percent from 2000 to 2018," the poverty rate "more than doubled since 2000."

This makes Brooklyn Center an ideal place for the kind of wraparound support that a full-service community school can provide, according to a 2019 report from the statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota.

The report describes full-service community schools as an "educational equity-focused model that places the needs of students at the center of analysis and decision-making in school improvement."

The goal is to tackle the underlying causes of the disparities that show up in the classroom rather than focus more narrowly on students' academic needs, while also empowering community members to solve problems that are relevant to them.

An Alternative to Competition-Based School Reform

Such an approach bears little resemblance to the choice and competition-based school reform plans that have received extensive bipartisan support in recent decades.

Billions in federal taxpayer dollars have in fact been directed to the mostly unregulated charter school industry over the past 20 years, according to watchdog groups such as the Center for Media and Democracy, with the supposed goal of leveling the playing field for students from marginalized communities.

This flood of cash has led to numerous scandals in states such as Ohio and Arizona, where charter school operators have absconded with the public's money, leaving desperate communities in their wake.

Minnesota, where the nation's first charter school opened in 1991, has had its share of such scandals as well. Recently, it was revealed that a Saint Paul charter school called Hmong College Prep Academy lost nearly $5 million in taxpayer money after illegally investing millions in a New Jersey-based hedge fund.

Along the way, students and families have not been better served by the growing charter school industry, from the perspective of groups such as the NAACP and the Network for Public Education. Chicago-based education justice activist Jitu Brown addressed this issue at a forum on public education held in Pittsburgh during the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

With a list of Democratic presidential hopefuls in attendance, Brown referred to school choice as an "illusion" and instead advocated for "sustainable community schools" that provide a comprehensive, quality education for all children.

Serving the Community in a Time of Crisis

The idea that a school could function more as a community hub and less like an isolated outpost was put to the test shortly after Wright was killed on a Brooklyn Center street earlier this year.

Wright's death at the hands of a police officer occurred as the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin was wrapping up just a few miles away, in downtown Minneapolis, for the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Chauvin was eventually found guilty of murdering Floyd, and his trial, along with Wright's killing, put the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area on edge.

It also led to nightly protests at Brooklyn Center Police Department headquarters, which sits across the street from the city's high school campus. The clashes between police and protesters escalated quickly, thanks to an aggressive, militarized response from National Guard soldiers tasked with quashing unrest.

When the officers began firing flash-bangs and tear gas at the crowd, many Brooklyn Center families who live in the area suddenly found themselves in need of food, shelter, and comfort.

This crisis heightened both the ongoing challenges that area residents have been facing, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the healing potential present in full-service community schools.

"Brooklyn Center is already a food desert," Goyah says, and so the community knew families would have an even harder time accessing groceries amid the ongoing protests.

Donations soon rolled in, allowing Goyah and his colleagues to distribute items such as diapers, Gatorade, food, and COVID-safe masks. Soon, a GoFundMe account that was started on behalf of the community had garnered more than $100,000 in cash donations.

Rhonda Johnson Marn works alongside Goyah at Brooklyn Center High School, where she will soon begin her 10th year as an English teacher. She agrees with Goyah that the district's full-service model made it much easier to serve the community in a time of crisis.

Getting resources to people in need wouldn't have happened "as quickly and efficiently had we not been a community school with existing relationships with organizations and businesses that could donate supplies, money, and time," she said.

One issue full-service community schools often face is a lack of sustainable funding, which Johnson Marn called a hindrance.

Recently, the Biden administration threw its weight behind this model by proposing more than $400 million in new funding to expand these schools. This represents a sharp turn away from the federal government's long-standing investment in school choice schemes that often pull students out of their community.

Now, with examples like that of Brooklyn Center, it is possible to see community schools as a source of support and strength, especially in times of crisis.

Not every school community is facing the kinds of challenges linked to systemic racism and poverty that Brooklyn Center has, of course. But it's certainly possible to see from the past year, when the pandemic forced many school districts to quickly pivot to distance learning, that no community really knows exactly when they'll need more support.

As a new school year begins,⁠ with ample evidence that teachers will need to address pandemic-caused trauma that has affected children and communities, the full-service community school model might just be worth a closer look.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

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