For the last week, I’ve been staring at a postcard that arrived in the mail. The front carries a picture of a small, solemn girl who appears Latina. Against a sea of pixelated gray that suggests the stoop of an old schoolhouse, she holds a cardboard sign that says “I need change, not just more $.”
The flip side carries four short sentences in which a few words appear in red ink. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), it says, spends $23,000 per student, or about twice the state average, yet graduates fewer than 50 percent of its students on time.
The only other thing on the card is an invitation to visit the website of a group I’d never heard of called Better Ed, where I can “join thousands of concerned parents and citizens.” There the MPS-as-sinkhole theme is repeated in a number of guises, complete with any number of authoritative charts and graphs bearing citations to official documents.
The district’s performance is everyone’s business, the site explains, not just because the education of disadvantaged children is involved but because three-fourths of MPS’ funding comes from outside its boundaries. That that money is not securing results like those achieved in Edina, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and other suburbs with lower per-pupil expenditures is the predominant theme.
It’s all debunkable. Every time I look at the website, though, I feel a sense of utter exhaustion. The distortions, conflations and creative logic in its blog posts can be unraveled and shown to be more ideological than scholarly. But it’s going to be tedious going.
Yesterday, during my umpteenth attempt at starting this post, it finally occurred to me that the facts may not actually be the point. The worst of the damage is subliminal.
The doe-eyed child is holding exactly the same kind of homemade sign that homeless people heft at the top of off ramps. Off ramps that funnel people into the central cities, often people who drive in from more prosperous communities.
Referred to website
Is this intentional? I can’t say. Better Ed’s administrators declined to answer my questions, including such basics as how many people got the postcards, whether the addresses were taken from property-tax rolls and what their overall goal is. They referred me to their site, and so I have spent some time surfing.
Beyond the emotional response the postcard evokes, here is what I know: Better Ed is an offshoot of something called Intellectual Takeout, which describes itself as “a non-partisan, educational 501(c)(3) institution based in Minnesota, with staff and volunteers located around the country, and even internationally. Since our founding in January 2009, we have been committed to playing a pivotal role in fundamentally reshaping America based on the ideals of freedom, justice, and subsidiarity.”
(You hadn’t heard the word subsidiarity either? I’ll spare you the Wikipedia visit: “Subsidiarity is an organizing principle of decentralization stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively.”)
Many of the blog posts are authored by Intellectual Takeout co-founder Devin Foley, a former staffer of the Center of the American Experiment, the conservative think tank where Katherine Kersten’s scholarship takes place. Most recently, her writings have focused on the perils of continuing to insist on and fund school desegregation. The center, I did not realize until I began researching this piece, is a member of something called the State Policy Network.
ALEC also in network
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is also a network member. In case you have missed the red-hot controversies of the last two years involving ALEC, the nutshell version is that it bills itself as a membership group where corporations and right-wing ideological groups share policy priorities and model legislation with state lawmakers.
The elected officials pay $50 a year to belong, the private sector tens of thousands. Among the model bills lawmakers bring home have been right-to-work initiatives, “shoot first” legislation, bills allowing tobacco companies easier access to kids, and all kinds of gifts to industry.
Education is one of those industries. More specifically, publicly traded online K-12 schools, assessment companies, for-profit charter operators and others who would like, presumably, a slice of the good money Better Ed suggests is being thrown after bad. Along with vouchers, homeschooling and the creation of more charters, some of these offerings are described by the group and its parent blog as promising options to the costly status quo.
Other posts suggest — and not subtly — that suburban property owners should resent the portion of their tax dollar that goes to MPS and should be skeptical of schemes such as a proposed return to a more equitable statewide general education levy. (St. Paul gets a big pass, as do a handful of other districts with yawning achievement gaps.)
The overall impression
So there I was, a few hundred deadly dull words into a post picking apart and truthifying one of the examples extolled — that Edina graduates 93 percent of its students on time on spending $22,000 vs. MPS’ 47 percent at a cost of $23,000 — when it hit me that this was most certainly not the point.
Argumentation aside, the impression the site leaves is that the quagmire is just too big and too expensive to waste another nickel on. Taxpayers are to be forgiven for looking the other way.
You know what I do when I drive up alongside someone holding a cardboard sign at the top of an off ramp? I look away. Eye contact would put me in the painful position of acknowledging unmet need. Need that feels so overwhelming my best option is to keep driving.