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Education forum elicits specifics — in plain language — from mayoral candidates

Each candidate committed to backing MPS’ “Shift” proposal, to seeking an end to “last in, first out” teacher layoff practices, and to the presence of TFA teachers in the schools.

The Minneapolis mayoral forum on education courtesy of the UpTake.

No matter the winner of the mayor’s race at the ballot box, Minneapolis has already experienced a victory. Monday night, six candidates participated in a sold-out forum at which they were asked direct, pointed questions about their education platforms.

For the most part, they answered. And in lay-friendly, impassioned English — not the risk-averse code that typically plagues local candidate forums in a nearly one-party town.

The star of the evening: Moderator Nekima Levy-Pounds, the University of St. Thomas law professor who insisted on answers from candidates who tried to duck pointed questions, shut down speechifying and interjected enough wit to keep the air breathable.

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“This,” she noted several times in a voice that was far more appreciative than censorious, “is not Minnesota Nice.”

Fueled in part by the publication in this space Monday of a lengthy Q&A in which Mayor R.T. Rybak made blunt remarks about his would-be successors’ strengths and weaknesses, the forum was respectful and constructive — but definitely not Minnesota Nice.

Sponsored by the MinnCAN, the African American Leadership Forum, the Chicano Latino Affairs Council, the Community Justice Project, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Teach for America, the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, Students For Education Reform, Students First and Put Kids First Minneapolis the capacity event was streamed live online. It’s available for viewing at The Uptake.

The candidates present were Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, Stephanie Woodruff and Cam Winton.

Commitments made

By the end of the evening, each of the candidates had committed to backing Minneapolis Public Schools’ “Shift” proposal — albeit squishily in a couple of instances — to demanding an end to “last in, first out” teacher layoff practices, with caveats on Andrew’s part, and to the continued presence of alternatively trained Teach for America (TFA) corps members in MPS schools.

Samuels was the most effusive of the group, all but jumping out of his seat to underscore his remarks. “It sounds like we ought to pass a collection plate,” Levy-Pounds joked at one point.

Winton and Hodges made sure the audience was reminded of the criticisms Rybak leveled at Andrew in the MinnPost interview, with Winton proposing a “pop quiz” to identify the candidate whose past remarks qualified as “deeply stupid” and “garbage.” Hodges also took issue with Andrew’s remarks, as enumerated by Rybak, tying education reform to the Koch brothers.  

Winton and Samuels were the most specific in their remarks and biting in their criticism of the status quo. Hodges’ written platform is comprehensive and practical — and perhaps too nuanced to communicate tidily at a fast-moving forum.

Of all of those on the dais, Andrew stood to lose the most at the forum, convened by a host of organizations that aren’t his natural constituency. He originally RSVP’d that a conflict prevented him from attending, but then arranged to attend.

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Some surprising answers from Andrew

His answers to many of the questions were surprising. At an appearance a month ago, Andrew remarked that he had “never been a fan of charter schools.” Monday night, he seemed to reverse himself.

“I am a very strong supporter of school choice and always have been,” he said. “We need to make sure all of those options are available, all of those models are available.”

At the same August event Andrew also received an endorsement from MPS teacher Jim Thomas, who had been running for mayor in part “to fight against lowering teacher qualifications” by hiring TFA recruits to work in MPS schools.

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds

“Clearly, TFA is part of the solution,” Andrew told the 300-plus people in attendance at the Mill City Museum. “They are truly among the best and the brightest.”

This drew a reaction from Hodges. “We need a mayor who hasn’t picked a side,” she said near the forum’s end. “We need a mayor who says the same thing wherever she goes.”

Throughout, Levy-Pounds kept participants on their toes. Answers to a question about the rate at which African-American boys are suspended and expelled drew pointed remarks about parenting and about perverse incentives.

The exception: Hodges, who acquired two African-American grandsons by marriage a couple of years ago. If either was suspended, “I would not immediately assume there was something wrong with them,” she said. “I would want to know what was going on in that school.”

Before framing the next query, Levy-Pounds underscored the remark, pointing out that it’s shortsighted to attribute the dramatic disparity in discipline rates to minority children and not the culture of the schools.

Moderator insists on details

When the first question of the evening drew a stump speech instead of a direct answer, Levy-Pounds insisted on specifics: What policies would candidates promote to increase the percentage of MPS’ impoverished minorities who are positioned to graduate from college.

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The second candidate to answer, Stephanie Woodruff talked for her allotted 90 seconds about a lack of leadership in education. When Levy-Pounds refused to move on, there was nervous laughter from the others on the dais.

To her credit, Woodruff supplied a reply: She favors Shift, which she believes would give schools the power to progress.

Levy-Pounds pressed on, with a very specific question about the role of standardized testing. Andrew opined that there is too much of it. Cherryhomes would prefer to add continuous assessment and a focus on social-emotional learning. Winton repeated his desire for formative quizzes throughout the year.

“I think we have a problem with our testing program or philosophy,” said Samuels. “Right now we’re testing to see what you know, now how much we need to teach you.”

Woodruff segued from her point to one about technology, vowing to “leave no child untablet-ed.”

Support for Shift initiative

Levy-Pounds next asked about candidates’ support for Shift, which would put the most challenged of Minneapolis Public Schools under an alternative teacher contract that would allow for extended school days, allow principals to hire outside the current teacher pool and pay more to teachers in those schools.

One after another, as the candidates signaled their support for the initiative, several expounded in ways that telegraphed more about their styles.

“I gotta tell you, it ain’t gonna happen unless someone here on this podium who gets elected gets involved,” said Samuels. “Bernadeia is going to need a human shield, and I am a volunteer. … Powerful forces are working against her.”

Winton said he did not believe MPS and its union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, were making much progress toward creating the Shift contract. “Bernadeia is like Moses on the mountain,” he said. “I am mixing my metaphors, but she’s got the tablets on the mountain.”

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Saying he had “a titanium spine” Andrew insisted that he “has never been in anyone’s pocket.”

“We can’t have a mayor who is divisive and a bomb thrower,” he said. “Tonight, I will rise above the cynicism.”