A cynic would be forgiven for wondering whether the press conference Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Andrew held Monday afternoon, flanked by five members of the school board, was at least partly an exercise in damage control.
At the session, held in the library at Windom Dual Immersion School in southwest Minneapolis, Andrew announced a three-pronged education agenda. At its center: a promise to convene a collaborative headed by education advocates with divergent philosophies, Mike Ciresi and Louise Sundin.
“The conversation about improving educational outcomes for kids of color has gotten extremely polarized and increasingly heated in the past several years,” Andrew explained in the plan. “The reformers vs. unions dichotomy is unproductive, and doesn’t serve the best interests of our children or find Minneapolis solutions to the problems in Minneapolis’ schools.”
One of the hottest topics on the electoral agenda in Minneapolis this year, education has proven a tough arena for Andrew. Early on in his campaign, he attempted to link rival Betsy Hodges to a Koch brothers-backed scheme to privatize Minneapolis schools and later said he had “never been a fan of charter schools.”
The remarks rankled many, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. In an interview with MinnPost, Rybak called Andrew’s statement “reckless” and “deeply stupid.” At an education-focused candidate forum the night the interview was published, Andrew reversed himself — albeit with caveats.
Hodges has made sure the about-face has stayed visible, pointing out at public appearances that she says the same thing no matter her audience. In early September, she put forth an education proposal that would convene advocates with diverse views at a “mayor’s table.”
While the mayor has no formal role in running the schools, Rybak and many other education advocates believe his or her influence, as the most visible elected official in the city, is invaluable in emboldening district leaders.
Don Samuels and Cam Winton have campaigned on education reform platforms since the start of the race. Grilled about their views at forums, other candidates have come up with less-developed platforms.
On Friday, Chris Stewart, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum and a former Minneapolis school board member, posted a video (below) on Facebook of Andrew’s Koch brothers remarks, made at a Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation forum.
“The problem is a lot of the people who are supporting some of the other candidates for mayor want to corporatize the schools,” Andrew says in the video. “And I respectfully disagree with that. I do not support the Koch brothers shipping money into Minneapolis and trying to change our school system.”
Minneapolis district and teachers union leaders have tussled for several years over changes to the contract that many believe are crucial to closing the academic achievement gap. This year, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has asked the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) to allow dramatic changes in the district’s lowest-performing schools.
The Koch brothers have not had so much as an arm’s length role in the local campaigns for reform, but a phalanx of the MFT that’s closely aligned with the Chicago teachers union insists that the changes are part of a corporate-funded effort to close public schools and replace them with private ones.
“I’m gonna be a teacher guy,” Andrew tells the audience in the Facebook video.
At Monday’s press conference, Andrew said his administration would support Johnson’s SHIFT proposal as well as continued support for teachers’ right to collective bargaining.
Minneapolis school board members Jenny Arneson, Kim Ellison, Rebecca Gagnon, Richard Mammon and Alberto Monserrate stood with him. All voted in favor of the current teachers’ contract. Board Chair Monserrate, too, has expressed support for SHIFT.
Andrew’s proposed collaborative would start work his first day in office, he explained, and would contain equal numbers of members selected by Ciresi and Sundin. Their mission, he added: “To provide a forum and a format to bring thought leaders in education together to have meaningful dialogue and bring down barriers.”
Attorney and philanthropist Ciresi is a passionate advocate of education reform. The Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, which he heads and which funds numerous efforts to improve schools, is frequently mentioned as a part of the corporate reform movement.
“We have to have a sense of urgency that we have not had in this city in recent years,” Ciresi said Monday. “The status quo is not working.”
Sundin is vice president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and former head of the MFT, which has resisted many of the changes sought by some of Ciresi’s causes.
“We have our differences, but we share the same goal: restoring our schools,” said Sundin. “Teacher voice and teacher autonomy are critical to student success.”
The other two planks of Andrew’s “Growing Great Kids” proposal expand on ideas he has been talking about since his campaign began: building safe neighborhoods with ample affordable housing and job opportunities; and revamping the Youth Coordinating Board, which he helped found in 1985.