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A tale of two states and two models for public education

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Jeff Kolnick and Pete Ontiveros
Gov. Tim Walz, a career public school teacher, recently appointed another public school teacher, Mary Cathryn Ricker, to head the Minnesota Department of Education. What a great idea. Who better to lead our Pre-K-to-12 system of education than an educator?

In Los Angeles, teachers are striking in a district with a superintendent who has never been a teacher, has no training of any kind in education, and is single-minded in his commitment to privatizing public schools.

While Minnesota was electing an educator to be governor, in Los Angeles a cadre of billionaires, committed to turning public schools into profit centers for corporations, were busy buying a majority of the Los Angeles School Board. In 2017, pro-charter-school billionaires spent an unprecedented $9.7 million to affect the election. Contributions came from the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), Doris Fischer (The Gap), Reed Hastings (Netflix), and Eli Broad (construction). Their investment paid off when the new school-board majority appointed their billionaire buddy, Austin Beutner, as the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district is the second largest in the nation with more than 600,000 students and 30,000 full-time teachers.  

Beutner, an investment banker by trade, has no children in the LA public schools, and knows nothing of the daily challenges or the missionary zeal teachers bring on their journey to deliver quality public education. He is driven by a one-item agenda: ensure the failure of public schools in order to privatize LA Unified and enrich the investor class. The educational consequences of this are irrelevant to the billionaire crowd because their children have trust funds and go to private schools.  

The ‘portfolio model’

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Dennis Hagen-Smith
Beutner is a follower of the “portfolio model” of public education. According to Chalkbeat reporter Matt Barnum, advocates of the portfolio model seek to have choice in public schools, weakening the idea of having an excellent school in every neighborhood. The district encourages competition with for-profit charter schools, backs off managing the schools, and rewards high performing schools while closing bad ones. In other words, a successful school system is just like managing a stock portfolio. Paul Hill, who founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education in 1993, wrote, “Like investors with diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds, school boards would closely manage their community’s portfolio of educational service offerings, divesting less productive schools and adding more promising ones.” 

If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, school districts are not stock portfolios, students are not products, teachers are not machines, and classrooms are not assembly lines.

The United States is poised to observe an experiment in public education. In one state, a governor with roots in teaching and learning appointed a commissioner of education who shares those roots. Meanwhile, in California, a group of billionaires is seeking to turn public schools into corporations. One state will focus on teaching and learning and the other on making money. And the subjects of this experiment are a generation of young people.

What is happening in America?   

Out of alternatives

Minnesota is unlikely to see a teacher strike because our leadership focuses on educating students and not lining the pockets of investors. Peter Greene, a former educator turned journalist, explained the nature of teacher strikes this way: “Teacher strikes happen because teachers believe they are out of alternatives. … Strikes happen when school district leadership convinces the most strike-averse teachers that they are out of options. … Increasingly the agenda of many people taking positions of authority over public education is to dismantle public education and replace it with a network of private charter schools, a process often accelerated by starving public schools for funding in order to manufacture a crisis. And lest we forget, current secretary of education Betsy DeVos once declared that public schools are a ‘dead end.’ Beutner’s comment to a reporter regarding the strike was, ‘There are ways to educate kids that don’t rely on a physical body.’ Teachers are not necessary.”

We are a products of California public schools, from the kindergarten to community college to the UCLA. We are in solidarity with the teachers working to preserve the excellent educational system that gave us the chance to learn and thrive. The three of us wish we were represented by an educator like Tim Walz, who would never take the PUBLIC out of public education.

Jeff Kolnick and Pete Ontiveros grew up together in Orange County, California, and graduated from public schools, Fullerton Community College, and UCLA. Dennis Hagen-Smith graduated public schools and became friends with Jeff and Pete at UCLA. Pete’s work with students inspired Dennis to become a teacher. Jeff teaches history at Southwest Minnesota State University. Pete is a retired elementary school teacher and longtime member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Dennis is 2018-2019 LAUSD Teacher of the Year.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Lee Carlson on 01/18/2019 - 05:14 pm.

    Appreciate the perspective! It is a tiring annoyance every time an educational system is hijacked by forces that don’t know the HOW or the WHY. Spending time in a classroom helps greatly to understand the HOW. Approaching my classroom from the foundation of WHY students need to learn this or that has required tremendous change over 30 years as an educator. Politics has infected education in far too many ways, festering in LAUSD until a strike resulted. Beutner’s comment “Teachers are not necessary” belies a serious defect that I believe will be revealed even more so as the strike continues. Jeff, Pete, Dennis – thank you for your work and for sharing the story as you see and live it.

  2. Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/18/2019 - 06:07 pm.

    It is odd to have an article lamenting the incursion of charter schools into California, in supposed contrast to MN’s public schools, but not mention that Minnesota invented charter schools, and currently has over 160 of them.

    Minnesota implemented the portfolio model of charter schools, open enrollment and “school choice” 25 years ago.

  3. Submitted by Bill Kuhlmann on 01/19/2019 - 12:06 pm.

    It would be interesting to see if a state about the size of Finland (5.6 million, coincidentally the size of Minnesota) adopted their general model of revamping teacher education and teacher pay to a point where teaching was one of the most selective and desired professions. A change like that would ruffle a lot of feathers and be very challenging to implement but could make a huge difference in educational outcomes

    • Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/20/2019 - 01:03 pm.

      Teachers in Finland don’t make all that much, certainly much less than LA teachers make. But Finland doesn’t have the wealth inequality that we do here so their pay is more in line with other professions. They are a nation of the middle class and enjoy a robust social safety net and the taxes that go with it. For their model to work here would require a makeover of American society. A lot of the newbies in Congress will be working to make that happen but I am not holding my breath.

    • Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/20/2019 - 04:56 pm.

      Compared to LA, being a teacher in MN is already like being a teacher in Finland. Teaching is a competitive, desired career with reasonable levels of “respect” in Minnesota. Median teacher pay is above the state median. If you’re a teacher outstate, it usually is one of the best paying jobs in town, with great benefits and a pension.

  4. Submitted by Don Casey on 01/19/2019 - 12:51 pm.

    “Gov. Tim Walz, a career public school teacher… ” Career teacher? It appears he spent about 16 years teaching (2 in China, perhaps 2 in his home state of Nebraska and 12 in Mankato. 16 years teaching and 10+ as a politician qualifies as a “career teacher”?

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/21/2019 - 10:18 am.

    I am a “huge” believer in education.

    However, the word “education” is not automatically the same as “union, trickle down, government controlled, political special interest education.

    Education means education. Families should be able to choose the type of education that is best for their children.

    Let us have the freedom to move for the old – worn out – union first model to a more family and child centered model of education that is more in line with the 21st century.

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