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MPS critique offers an ideological spur to resentment

better-ed.org
A postcard from the group Better Ed criticizes public school funding in Minneapolis.

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. 

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/06/2013 - 10:37 am.

    Ms Hawkins – Can you, from your position of knowledge,

    Clarify the per-pupil funding question? Numbers upwards of $20K/pupil are always cited for MPS spending. I worked closely with my daughter’s MPS K-5 budget for several years not too long ago, and what we got from MPS, every year, was $5-$6K/pupil. We’re told administration is just a few percent of the MPS budget. So was MPS shorting our school by $15K/pupil? Is 75% of the MPS budget for special ed and other needs that the urban districts bear disproportionately? Are large proportions going to capital maintenance or otherwise not reaching the classroom? Please help us understand if the ideologues/profiteers are just being dishonest, or if vast MPS sums are going down rabbit holes. Thank you.

  2. Submitted by Mary Cecconi on 03/06/2013 - 10:46 am.

    great job

    I am so happy to see a news source outing these out of state, ideologically driven, well-funded grass tops organizations who profess that they speak for Minnesota parents. Thank you for asking us to consider the source of these so called reform groups!

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 03/06/2013 - 10:54 am.

    privatizing education

    This is just another effort by corporations and big business to try to destroy our public education system. Companies are pouring tons of money into privatizing schools, probably so they can better control them and turn out robots — graduates — to their liking that fit into the business model better. Businesses don’t especially want people who can think critically; in fact, a Texas proposal would outlaw exactly that — critical thinking in the schools.
    I am doubtful that we can stop this avalanche of money into our former democracy that would destroy government and privatize everything–post office, schools, you name it. What can stop this?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/06/2013 - 11:56 am.

      Education Reform

      Ginny, I doubt the motivation is as sinister as you portray it. It’s not so much an attempt to make robot employees as an attempt to control the purse strings. The perception thrown at the public for decades is “government is part of the problem, not the solution.” To put it even more simply, they state that government is bad and business is good.

      But even that masks the overriding reason for taking that stance. Quite simply, it’s all about the money. With $23,000 spent per student, businesses just want that cash. That’s why you see so many for profit colleges popping up all over the place. They take the student loans the government provides and funnels the funds to their business. Whether or not they provide a decent education to kids at a decent price is immaterial.

      The truth is the people behind these grass roof initiatives aren’t for smaller government, they’re for less effective government. The “smaller government” mantra is just the tool they use to get what they want: the government cash. Beat up the government, make it look bad, then claim private industry can do a better job, even though studies have shown just the opposite.

      Oh wait, that is just as sinister as your perspective. Carry on.

  4. Submitted by Adam Platt on 03/06/2013 - 11:33 am.

    Undesired Bedfellows

    If it is becoming difficult to separate those who want to destroy the public schools from those who merely do not want to enable their worst qualities, that is truly tragic. The well-meaning among us who want no part of a conservative ideologically driven endeavor will need to work even harder not to be lumped in with them.

    To the cost/outcome numbers, I would suspect that the public schools are attempting to do far more than they were in 1963 and educate kids who would never have been able to be served by a public school back then. Kids with severe physical or mental disabilities. Kids who do not speak English and arrive in school with cultural/religious values that are often at odds with those at work in the broader society. MPS is also being asked to educate a whole subset of kids who come to school aggressively hostile to the value of learning. Kids who not only subvert their futures but work to subvert those around them. I hear about these kids every day from my high schooler and witness their impact on his learning and enjoyment of school.

    There’s not enough money in the world that can fix this, and I’ve yet to see evidence that any particular educational model has shown enduring success there. Extraordinary teachers may be able to reach a few kids here and there, but the problem otherwise remains the elephant in the room.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/06/2013 - 11:53 am.

      “Undesired bedfellows” is a feature, not a bug. The notion of failing schools is utter baloney as well. If you look at the gold standard of testing, the NAEP, students have been improving for over three decades; and not just a little, but a lot. And the so-called achievement gap has also been decreasing.

      The underlying goal is the destruction of the teachers’ unions and the exposure of all the money spent on primary and secondary education to private profit extraction. Full stop.

      You rarely see this expressed this bluntly in the public media, as well as here on Minnpost, because, as someone once said, it’s hard to get someone to see something when their job depends on them not seeing it.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/06/2013 - 11:50 am.

    I hesitate to even begin

    Chuck Holtman asks an excellent question — one well worth a specific (and even nuanced) answer — but it’s a tree in the forest, so to speak.

    The larger and more important issue, in my view, is raised by Ginny Martin. Public schools are among the very few remaining institutions in the country that remain democratic (small “D”) in a very real and consistent way. Her reference to Texas is spot-on. What the Texas proposal substitutes for education is indoctrination, and of a particular type not at all friendly to anything that approaches genuine democracy, no matter how vigorously its advocates wave the flag.

    Children are not products. Schools are not businesses. Nor should either of them be. Privatizing education not only will do away with one of the last bastions of democratic government and thought — name 5 Fortune 500 companies whose internal operations are democratic — but guarantees not just the institutionalization of a yawning achievement gap, but carving that gap into granite, and cementing the disgraceful result into the Washington Monument.

  6. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 03/06/2013 - 12:16 pm.

    Chuck

    I’m thinking about your question but I have one for you, first: Did that $5k-$6k per pupil include teacher salaries? I ask because one of the parts of the answer has to do with staffing costs not being level from building to building.  

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/06/2013 - 02:45 pm.

      Beth, yes that covered salaries.

      It meant the first 18-20 kids in the class were just to break even on the teacher, and the excess from additional students went to fund the specialists, operational costs, etc. As close to the bone as you could get. But if I remember correctly, the school wasn’t “debited” for the actual salaries of our actual teachers, it was debited an MPS “average” amount for each teacher. Then there were some other funds in other boxes for special ed, ELL, &c and the ability to “cross-subsidize” with those was limited.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/06/2013 - 04:51 pm.

        Budget

        The Minneapolis Public School system’s budget for 2011-2012 was $693,744,270 for 32,200 kids. That’s roughly $21,545 per kid. But that figure includes food service, community service, capital projects, and debt service. The general fund spending budget was $517,409,000. That’s about $16,069 per kid. Teachers’ salaries averaged about $66,412. Salaries + benefits made up about 80% of the operating (general fund) budget, at $431,277,238, and includes all salaries, not just teachers (of which there are about 2375).

        So, I’m not sure where either the $23k or the $6k numbers came from.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/07/2013 - 10:57 am.

          I suspect if you dig into the details the picture changes

          I doubt a simple division of students to expenses yields an accurate per student cost. For instance the district may be paying a certain amount for food service, but it’s not providing that service to every student for free, so there’s some revenue that needs to be accounted for. Same with sports and what not. From an accounting perspective it can get dicey. For instance you wouldn’t necessarily include capital improvement in a per-pupil formula because it’s unlikely that those dollars are distributed evenly across the district, an average like that may not give you a clear picture of per-pupil spending. Statistically you may want to calculate a median or even a mode instead of an average. So if you install a new boiler and add 15 teachers at one school, is that actually increasing the costs of teaching a student at in another school?

          • Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/07/2013 - 03:37 pm.

            Paul, you’re restating my original question

            Which hasn’t yet been answered. Our school gets $6K/pupil for general funding. Rachel says the funding is $16K/pupil once you subtract some admin/capital spending. What is the other $10K/pupil (or about $320M)? If it’s for special ed, ELL, &c, then it isn’t “per pupil” and it isn’t fair to compare MPS with huge such populations and districts without them. If we actually had $16K to spend per pupil, we’d have eight kids in a class and I bet we’d make some progress.

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/09/2013 - 11:35 am.

              Original questions

              I like to think I’m clarifying your original question Chuck.

            • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/11/2013 - 11:01 am.

              Thanks, Chuck

              I did understand your question. The long and short of it is, I don’t know where that money goes if only $6k is being spent on some children. The cost is much higher, on average. But cost and allocation are two different things. I just don’t see how more than 50% could be funneled away from some kids. That being said, it’s clear from the budget that primary school costs are lower than middle and high school. But not that much. The bigger issue is that, if pressed for actual costs, there would probably be some huge disparities, which are fully justified, but if they were freely made public, some people would simply use it as an excuse to completely defund public schools. And probably in areas that most need public education.

              A big issue that needs to be addressed is cross funding. It would seem that dollars could be better spent preparing some of the more cost intensive kids to be able to better use mainstream resources rather than simply tossing them into a system that doesn’t function well for them, and then pulling more resources from the larger pool of kids to supplement the needs of the kids we dump into the system without proper preparation.

              I don’t have an answer, but I tried to provide numbers that reflect actual costs and not what someone said the costs are, because it would appear that both ends of the spectrum are tailored to support a particular view, not necessarily reality.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/08/2013 - 10:20 am.

          For perspective, some of the most prestigious private schools

          in the area charge $20,000 per year and up, even for elementary school. The ones that don’t are usually subsidized by a religious organization.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/06/2013 - 08:20 pm.

    I would suggest that …

    Teach for America and some of the for profit recent entries into the metro big cities are as threatening to public education as what is being reported in the above piece.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/07/2013 - 01:14 pm.

    Old ideology.

    These groups are vestiges of the Christian Right campaign against desegregation back in the 60s and 70s. There’s this religious ideology that makes coherent thought about education almost impossible. Their whole intellectual being is centered around teaching people what to think, not how to think. This why they’re constantly embroiled in curriculum battles like evolution.

    Such groups were never happy with public education but they were happiest when it was segregated. When segregation was outlawed they sought a variety end-runs around the law and one of the biggest was school vouchers and charter schools. The vouchers would give white parents the ability re-segregate and religious and charter schools gave them segregated schools send their kids to. As we’ve seen with recent studies that’s exactly what’s happened, our schools are re-segregating.

    Of course part and parcel of this approach was an ongoing attack on the public school system. It’s funny to watch this over time because of the twists and turns. Most people don’t seem to remember for instance that the big conservative complaint about public education in the 70s was that it was too experimental and unnecessarily innovative. Remember the “back to basics” demand? So then we went back to basics and got rid of the experimentation and suddenly our school weren’t innovative enough and the only possible solution was schools run by private sector entrepreneurs. Of course we now know that those schools are no more innovative then our system used be and by and large they deliver the same or worse results.

    Meanwhile the Center for The American Experiment is still banging away (in different guises) at the public school model, and large city public are the easiest targets.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/08/2013 - 03:23 pm.

      Racism?

      Or is it corporatism?

      I’m inclined to think it’s less about race (although I don’t deny it’s a factor) than it is about turning a profit. Charter schools–even the Odds Beating ones–are cash cows for their owners, who are feeding at the public trough with minimal oversight. The workforce is non-union, so one of the last vestiges of strong organized labor in America is threatened. As you point out, innovation in public education doesn’t have anything to do with teaching, it’s about privatization. The only innovations our current crop of reformers is looking at is how to sell the snake oil of market-based education to more school boards.

      Funny story: A college classmate of mine was from Mississippi, and he went to a “seg academy.” His parents were the town liberals, and they had no objection to my friend going to school with the “Negro” children. They pulled him out of the public schools when the schools started hiring black teachers. The line had been crossed!

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/08/2013 - 09:39 am.

    Institutional racism actually

    Just to make put a finer point on it, it is important to recognize that these right wing groups have institutionalized their racism, i.e. they built it into their institutions. This has the effect of masking it, but its clearly there.

    On one hand you have guys like Charles Murray ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Murray_%28author%29 ) who created the welfare queen stereotype back the 70s, and wrote: “The Bell Curve”. He keeps producing pseudo-scientific arguments that black Americans have lower IQs and are generally poor learners. In his most recent book: “Coming Apart: The State of White America” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coming_Apart:_The_State_of_White_America,_1960%E2%80%932010 Murray’s main complaint seems to be that white American families are emulating Black American families.

    Now one characteristic of almost any large American city is that they have larger black populations and higher percentages of black students in their public schools. So when you see these complaints about per-student funding in large urban school districts the subtext is that these students are more difficult to teach. Most conservatives know better than to just come out and say it, but they lay the dots side by side and hand you a pencil. The reason the costs are so high is because the high proportion of lower IQ black students makes education more expensive. The solution is self segregation via vouchers and charter schools that let us separate the high IQ good learners from the low IQ problem students.

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