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Minneapolis Schools, teachers union embark on high stakes hearts-and-minds campaigns

In addition to changes sought by MPS brass, state and federal officials have demanded reforms the district can’t enact without union cooperation.

classroom desks
Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and its teachers union have been campaigning to win the hearts and minds of the city’s residents for weeks.

Contract negotiations between Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and its teachers union have yet to start, but the campaign to win the hearts and minds of the city’s residents has been in full swing for weeks. For both sides, the stakes could not be higher.

Over the last decade negotiations between the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) have become increasingly fraught. So much so that the current contract, which expires June 30, was a year overdue in the negotiating.

The last two rounds of talks in particular have attracted an unusual amount of attention from both policymakers and the general public. In addition to changes sought by MPS brass, state and federal officials have demanded reforms the district can’t enact without union cooperation. And citizen groups have begun pushing for an end to the impasse.

Looming in the background is the specter of last fall’s strike by Chicago’s teachers, during which both sides scrambled to win the public’s support. Neither emerged a clear winner, nor was the settlement that ended the strike widely applauded.

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Indeed, elected officials and labor leaders are engaged in similar debates in New York, Los Angeles and many more cities where education reform is a red-hot topic. Like those cities, Minneapolis has seen the emergence of several mayoral hopefuls who have declared themselves the “education candidate.”

The ‘partnership zone’

Declaring it “time to get off the dime” in terms of closing the achievement gap, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson earlier announced a plan to begin employing strategies used by local high-performing charter schools in the district schools that are struggling the most.

The plan, which is similar to the “portfolio strategy” that produced dramatic progress in Boston, Denver and other cities, will require several major changes to the teachers’ contract. The lowest-performing 20 percent to 30 percent of schools would be placed in a “partnership zone” where they would be freed from district and contract constraints in exchange for progress toward accountability targets.

The MFT has countered by circulating fliers, holding house parties and organizing parents to draw attention to a “national right-wing corporate reform effort that seeks to push a business model of education on students.”

In addition, the MFT has accused a number of local organizations advocating for the changes Johnson seeks — including the Minneapolis Foundation, AchieveMpls and MPS itself — of posing “a threat to public education.”

How the Minneapolis School Board — always a pivotal player — will exercise its considerable influence is unknown. Conventional wisdom has its membership evenly divided on matters involving labor. But in the last year members who in the past have been reliable union supporters have voted for several initiatives that will expand the city’s high-performing charter sector.

All nine board members were in the front row in the Minneapolis Central Library’s auditorium May 13 when Johnson unveiled her “Shift” initiative to an audience packed with community leaders. For the leader of a culture that has historically communicated in subtext and code, her remarks were quite bold.

‘Little return’

Better, she said, would be a combination of both: Struggling schools should enter into “performance contracts” with the district that guarantee them the autonomy to create their own solutions but keep the accountability in place.

“We are already embracing the work of the handful of high-performing charter schools that are getting results for students, particularly black and brown students,” Johnson said. “Standout charter programs like Hiawatha Leadership Academies and Mastery School play a vital role in our work. They are modeling the performance that will soon be our norm.”

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The schools in question employ several strategies that enable them to scaffold impoverished kids who start out behind to academic success. Implementing the strategies in district schools within the partnership zone would require changes to the teachers’ contract the district has sought for years with little success.

The district, the Minneapolis Foundation, the African American Leadership Forum, the education reform group MinnCAN and other community organizations this spring launched a public awareness campaign showcasing the strategies. Known as RESET, an acronym for the five central strategies, the campaign is an effort to broaden discussion.

In April, Your Humble Blogger moderated a RESET event featuring author Steve Perry, founder of a gap-closing Connecticut school. Perry’s remarks were highly critical of teachers unions in general, sparking an ongoing, heated debate.

In its wake, MFT members called on the district to withdraw from the campaign. Johnson responded that while she disagreed with the language Perry used, she thought his overall message was one the community needed to hear.

For many, the debate has become deeply personal. Last week a member of the African American Leadership Forum dropped his son off at an MPS school only to have the boy’s teacher hand him a flier purportedly authored by an MFT organizer denouncing RESET as a “threat to public education.” [PDF]

(The program was later broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio, where it is still available for streaming.)

Johnson wants partnership zone schools to have the flexibility to have longer days to accommodate more teacher prep and instructional time, greater freedom in staffing decisions and incentives for the best teachers to assume leadership roles.

During the last round of contract talks, the district asked to lengthen the school year by 35 paid days. This would have put district schools on a schedule more like the calendars shared by the more successful schools.

The MFT balked, insisting that the solutions were lowered class sizes, additional teacher prep time and community initiatives to reduce poverty. A widely applauded teacher evaluation system developed jointly by the union and the district operates outside the scope of the contract.

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In April of 2012, after six contentious months of negotiations that concluded behind closed doors, a differently configured school board voted to accept a contract that included just four additional days.

Meanwhile, with overwhelming board support, Johnson had taken steps to increase the number of seats in odds-beating charter schools in Minneapolis. Even as the talks were stalled, the district began acting as a charter authorizer for a number of schools employing the tactics.

And MPS contracted with the founder of the first network of local high-performers, Eric Mahmoud, to open four of the aforementioned Mastery schools. Most recently, the board voted to sell a mothballed building in south Minneapolis in a deal that will help Hiawatha Academies accelerate an expansion plan.

(Full, obligatory Kramer Disclaimer: Hiawatha Academies’ executive director is Eli Kramer, son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. The MinnPost Kramers are not involved in assigning or editing stories that involve their family members who are active in education issues.)

Several school board members who have been loath to push the MFT too hard on contract issues have thrown their support behind these efforts to help expand the high-performing charter sector. They have been similarly supportive of Johnson’s gap-closing efforts in general.

Echoing language used by their union brethren in the run-up to the Chicago strike and in the months since its resolution, MFT members countered that the district has conspired to privatize education by closing public schools and replacing them with “corporate” charters.

Allegations struck a chord

The allegations are at best conflations — the schools in question are all nonprofits required to serve all comers, and typically with less money — but have struck an emotional chord in Minneapolis neighborhoods where declining enrollment and abysmal performance have led to numerous district school closures over the last decade.

In recent weeks, union leaders have directly tied Johnson to the supposed privatization scheme. Whether the allegations will sway the public remains to be seen.

In years past, the MFT has exercised its legal right to ask mediators appointed to oversee contract talks to close them to the public. The school board has in turn been slow to release audio recordings of concluded negotiations to the community activists who were shut out.The aura of secrecy has left the public at the mercy of the rhetoric espoused by each side — rhetoric it is poorly positioned to evaluate for truthfulness.

Indeed by announcing a plan to make the district’s lowest-performing schools look a lot more like the schools depicted as a part of the conspiracy, Johnson may be telegraphing a willingness to bring the debate — previously red-hot only in inside circles — into the open.

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“I am not satisfied,” she told the audience at the “Shift” initiative rollout. “Our school board is not satisfied. Many of our leaders, teachers and staff are not satisfied. Yet some adults in our system are satisfied with the status quo — and they will need to change or they will need to leave. It is their choice.”

MFT President Lynn Nordgren was quick to fire back [PDFs]. “We are disappointed that our leadership did not come first to the people who do the work everyday with students and instead decided to talk about us rather than with us,” she said in a statement sent to union members. “Hopefully, the district will come to the negotiations table with more of a collaborative spirit than they are currently demonstrating.”