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‘Fiscal crisis’ narratives in Minneapolis schools merit interrogation

The effect, if not the intent, of these narratives is a perception of crisis in our public schools, the insinuation that our educators are a selfish “special interest,” and the manufacturing of public consent to school closures and/or teacher layoffs.

Empty classroom desks
Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

Recent months have seen a great deal of media coverage around “the coming public education crisis.” The central theme running through this coverage is that public school districts across the country are facing a looming “fiscal calamity” that threatens their solvency and continued operation. The major cause of this ostensible crisis is the upcoming discontinuation of federal pandemic relief funds, some of which were used to bolster public school budgets during the pandemic.

This national narrative has played out here in Minneapolis as well, as local news outlets have reported on an “unprecedented fiscal crisis” confronting Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Such coverage has been largely based on a MPS budget memo from November 2022 that cites not only sunsetting pandemic relief but also declining enrollment and increasing personnel costs as portending the looming crisis.

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As senior MPS officials noted in a late June “Finance Department Q&A,” however, the projections in that memo did not reflect the augmented revenue streams for public education in Minnesota enacted during the state’s spring legislative session. New policies will help close some of the gaps created by decades of disinvestment by indexing the state’s general education formula up to 3% annually and increasing the state “cross-subsidy” for special education and English Language Learner services from 56% to 71%. According to MPS finance administrators, the potential doomsday scenarios bandied about in the media and by some MPS administrators themselves — including that the state might seize control of the district — were averted.

Nonetheless, with the new school year set to begin, it is worth unpacking several of the narratives that characterized recent media coverage and, in some cases, messages from MPS administrators.

One such narrative is that the district’s fiscal situation is somehow uniquely dire or even “unprecedented.” Despite the use of that term by MPS itself in its November memo, the finance administrators made clear at the June 27 event that budget “gaps” are routine and typically worked out over the course of an academic year. Just last year, MPS apparently began the year with a $70 million budget gap which the district was able to close without any layoffs or school closures; this year’s gap is in the $50 million to $60 million range. Why the panic now?

A second feature of recent coverage has to do with MPS enrollment, which declined by 17% from 2017 to 2022. MPS and media outlets pointed to several potential causes. All parties, however, have curiously played down the effects of charter schools and “open enrollment,” which account for roughly one-fifth of MPS’ lost student population over the last half decade and, more importantly, have siphoned 19,000 students, over 35% of the city’s entire student body, out of the city’s public schools. Why the relative silence on this matter?

Beyond this, other potential causes of recent disenrollment have not all had the same degree of impact. Though definitive data is unavailable, the biggest culprit is likely implementation of MPS’ Comprehensive District Design (CDD). Ostensibly undertaken in the name of racial equity, the CDD was, in truth, a boondoggle, uprooting thousands of students and hundreds of educators and shuffling them to new schools throughout the city — all in the midst of the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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More alarmingly, the School Board openly acknowledged the plan was unpopular among Minneapolis families prior to its enactment, admitting that the district anticipated losing up to one-third of its entire student body as a result of the CDD. While that worst-case scenario has yet to materialize, more than 4,200 students left MPS in the two years since the CDD’s enactment — nearly 13% of the entire student body and an increase in disenrollment of nearly 250% from the two years before implementation.

A final feature of the recent coverage is vilification of Minneapolis educators for exercising their right to collective bargaining to improve working conditions for themselves and conditions within our schools to better meet the diverse needs of Minneapolis students. While education service professionals won substantial raises following last year’s strike, teachers secured only a 5% raise over two years — when inflation has exceeded 13% during the last two years. As parents of MPS students, the recent denigration of our educators in the media has been alarming and disappointing.

The effect, if not the intent, of these narratives is a perception of crisis in our public schools, the insinuation that our educators are a selfish “special interest,” and the manufacturing of public consent to school closures and/or teacher layoffs.

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In her classic book The Shock Doctrine, author and activist Naomi Klein noted that privatizers and profiteers often take advantage of crises to commodify public goods and services and impose unpopular pro-market policies. Certainly, we know that privatizing public education and gutting public sector unions are cornerstones of a broader investor-class agenda of upward redistribution here in the Twin Cities. Might the recent brouhaha over the MPS budget have been a pretext for imposing “shock therapy” in our public schools?

Public education is a cornerstone of democracy, and we certainly need greater investment in our public schools. But we should be wary of the uses and abuses of “crisis” narratives in public education — they may be incited to achieve just the opposite.

Vinny Dionne, Terrance Frelix El, and Rebecca Pera
Vinny Dionne, Terrance Frelix El, and Rebecca Pera

This piece was submitted by Roberto Aspholm, Christin Crabtree, Vinny Dionne, Terrance Frelix El, Rebecca Pera and Sarah Tschida. All authors are members of Minneapolis Families for Public Schools and parents of MPS students.