Opinion editor’s note: This counterpoint was submitted on behalf of several Edina residents. They are listed below.
On Tuesday, Edina voters will elect three members to their school board. On Nov. 1, just a few days before Election Day, the Star Tribune published a commentary by Edina’s mayor, James Hovland headlined “I’ve had enough of the attacks on our schools.” In this rebuttal, we will show that the article contained misleading statistics and omitted crucial disclosures.
First, the mayor did not disclose that he provided official endorsement and/or financial support for exactly three current school board candidates. This indiscretion itself is sufficient to raise concern of bias.
On a more troubling note, the mayor did not disclose that he has an interest in populating the school board with political allies. As reported by the Star Tribune in March 2016, the Edina school board has voiced concern that the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) for the Grandview Green “lid” project — a concept that would include a land bridge over Hwy. 100 near City Hall — could have a negative impact on tax revenue for the city’s schools. Faced with such concerns, our mayor and City Council reluctantly “put the brakes” on the project in October 2018. Hovland’s stake is clear: A compliant school board would facilitate his TIF-fueled growth agenda.
The mayor warns of attempts to “mislead voters with ill-founded fears and distorted facts” regarding the state of our schools. Yet, his own argument withers upon analysis.
Mayor Hovland states that “our school population is growing, not shrinking” at a time when total enrollment is at its lowest since 2012-13. Hazel Reinhardt, former state demographer, recently studied Edina’s enrollment trends in collaboration with the city and school district. In her report, she projected a resident enrollment of between 7,089 and 7,110 students. At present, the actual resident enrollment is 6,952 students, which is the lowest this decade. Nearly 1 in 5 Edina families now choose to educate their children in private schools or in public schools outside Edina. Moreover, when the mayor touts our “second best” student retention rate in Minnesota, he cites a lagging indicator using 2017-18 data. In reality, Edina residents leaving for other public schools in 2018-19 increased by 144 students, or 58%.
ACT scores are one important benchmark for assessing school performance. Mayor Hovland cites that our seniors achieved an average composite score of 26.6 in 2019. (The actual value is 26.3.) But what is writ large between the lines is that the statistical mean is skewed by the lofty scores of a few stellar students (including six with perfect scores) as well as the combined efforts of an armada of private tutors employed by Edina’s relatively affluent households. Hovland’s untold story is that of the underprivileged student (perhaps among the 15% who open-enroll) who has the aptitude to succeed but lacks the financial means to compete against a well-heeled cohort that can afford extramural academic support.
More damning is the trend in Edina High School’s rankings in U.S. News & World Report. Although one might attribute any angst over falling from No. 1 to No. 10 as merely stung pride, a closer analysis reveals a malignant truth. U.S. News ranks Eastview, in Apple Valley, as Minnesota’s best public high school, and the difference between Eastview’s rank (No. 3) and Edina’s rank (No. 10) is explained by the quality of service provided to underserved students (defined by U.S. News as black, Hispanic and/or economically disadvantaged). At Eastview, 59.7% of underserved students are proficient in math and reading on state assessments. This is 21.3 percentage points better than the state average, earning a national rank of 481st. At Edina, only 37.2% of underserved students are proficient, which is 1.1 percentage points lower than the state average, commensurate with a national rank of 4,004th. Is it possible that Edina’s efforts to close this achievement gap have backfired? Does posing the question really constitute an “attack”?
Edina has a rich tradition of academic excellence and generally deserves its reputation. However, for a growing proportion of Edina families, the system does not work. Among this group, the affluent families will attend other schools and/or invest in outside assistance. Those of limited means may encounter a shameful disparity in educational access that is obscured by the success of their tutored peers. Meanwhile, a deeply conflicted mayor insists with righteous indignation that there’s nothing to see here, folks, nothing to see.
Signatories to this article include: Michael McNeeley, Erica Austrums, Bert Ledder, Mike and Jan Nelson, Kathy Simon, and Elizabeth and John M. Bean, all of Edina.