When Peggy Flanagan was elected to the Minneapolis School Board in 2004, she made history as its first Native American and, at 25, its youngest member. During her 2005-2009 tenure, Minneapolis Public Schools struggled to staunch an exodus of poor and minority students, close schools and balance a bare-bones budget and begin to close a yawning achievement gap. Now, after an 18-month absence, Flanagan is back on the board.
In July, the board voted to appoint Flanagan, the director of the Native American Leadership Program at Wellstone Action and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, to serve the remainder of former board member Pam Costain’s term, which ends in January. Costain resigned in June to take the helm of the education advocacy nonprofit Achieve Minneapolis.
At a recent school board meeting, Flanagan greeted news that the district was lowering its academic goals with an impromptu, impassioned speech about how upset she was to serve, leave and come back to discover that progress on reforms she’d helped guide has been incremental at best. “It breaks my heart to be here again,” she said.
Curious to know whether the work looks different to a short-term lame duck, MinnPost caught up with Flanagan earlier this week. Excerpts of the conversation follow.
MinnPost: You were on fire the other night when the topic of MPS’ enduring achievement gap came up. What fueled your emotional response?
Peggy Flanagan: School board members can make decisions that are very courageous, and I think the community wants us to do that. A lot of time the folks we don’t get calls from, don’t receive e-mails from are the folks that are working two jobs to support their family and who are under a great deal of stress.
The majority of our families live in poverty. The majority of our kids are kids of color. Oftentimes government and electoral politics are set up so that low-income people and communities of color can’t access it. That’s where the fiery, impassioned response that you saw the other night came from. These are the sorts of decisions we have to make that are focused on kids and are not focused on the well-being of grownups, and decisions that make grownups happy but the children successful.
MP: How did 18 months off the board change your thinking about schools?
PF: A lot of the debate we’ve been having lately has been around the policy language we’re going to have regarding equality versus equity. I talked about this before when I was on the board but feel even more strongly now that I have returned. What I want to do is to focus on equity.
What we need to see in Minneapolis Public Schools isn’t equality, it’s equity. There are kids on the north side of Minneapolis and in other parts of the city who come to school with many more challenges than kids who attend other schools.
My job is to make sure that a young African-American boy who is attending a school on the north side of Minneapolis is successful. My job is also to make sure that a white child from an affluent part of the city is successful. What that takes for each child is different.
Equality is having kids have the same thing across the board. Oftentimes issues of equality and justice are linked to one another. In my opinion, justice has more to do with equity, and making sure that people in our community have what they need. And in particular our students have what they need to be successful.
When I was on the board we often had this debate about equality and equity. But that’s all it was, it was just a debate. It never moved into action. That’s different 18 months later.
There are some concerns on using equity language that comes from staff. Some folks have said, Do you know what a large undertaking that is, and what that actually means? The answer is yes. And it’s going to be a lot of work and how we measure that and hold ourselves accountable to doing things that are equitable is a big undertaking but frankly it’s what we have to do. What we’d been doing in the past when talking about equality or giving lip service to equity without defining it, that clearly hasn’t been working out especially for children of color and Native American students.
MP: Is the there a kind of guerrilla freedom in having a six-month term?
PF: Oh yeah. But here’s the thing: Isn’t that how we should always govern? I look at somebody like [Sen.] Al Franken, for example, who in my opinion is a really good leader. He takes risks, he is willing to say the tough stuff, and part of that, in my opinion, is he doesn’t need that job. There is a level of freedom in that.
Being there for six months I know that there isn’t a whole lot that I am going to be able to accomplish, but there are things that I can say and I can be a part of this conversation to define equity. There is a bit of freedom in being able to just say the tough stuff.
I’m not running for re-election. I’m not trying to get the endorsement of an organization or a party, and I can just say, “This is what we need to do for kids of color and for Native American kids.” And I hope that as we move forward in talking about equity that more people in the community feel free to have these conversations.