It's safe to say: This was the education election

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 9, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Although a mayoral race led the ballot in Minneapolis, the city’s weaknesses in equity and achievement finally got their due.

Here at First Draft of Minneapolis History Headquarters, some of the lasting import of the 2013 city election was apparent even before the ranked-choice voting (RCV) ballot shuffle began Tuesday night.

Generation change washed over the Minneapolis City Hall. People of non-European ancestry flexed newfound political muscle. The supposedly all-powerful DFL establishment was left looking tired and out of touch (though party endorsement still packed a punch in contested ward races). RCV needs some postelection tweaks, but it’s here to stay.

But the observation about this election’s significance that stuck with me came Monday at the Broadway Avenue headquarters of the Northside Achievement Zone. Joe Nathan, a battle-scarred Minnesota education reform veteran and director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, was upbeat. Because of this election, he said, prospects are brighter for Minneapolis kids.

“Something changed this year,” Nathan said. “I’d boil it down to three words: optimism, hope and priority. All three of those things are different this year.”

I’d add a few more words: Embarrassed, weary, impatient and self-interested. Minneapolitans are embarrassed to be cited nationally as a place that does not adequately educate nonwhite children. They’re weary of excuses about poverty and high mobility — problems other cities have, too, but handle better. They’re impatient with leaders and interest groups who promise school betterment but don’t deliver.

And it’s dawning on them that educational underachievement among minority kids is not a problem that can be confined to one side of town. With minority population growth outpacing that of the white majority, the future economy of the whole region is at risk if minority kids in Minneapolis aren’t better-educated. The Minneapolis achievement gap is everybody’s problem.

But my words describe city voters’ attitudes circa spring 2013. Nathan’s labels better capture what ensued — a mayoral campaign arguably more focused on education than any since the dark days 42 years ago when antibusing Mayor Charles Stenvig beat back a challenge by civil-rights leader W. Harry Davis.

Credit for that emphasis belongs with a lot of people — including voters themselves, who told pollsters for this newspaper in early September that education is the most important issue facing Minneapolis.

But permit particular praise for third-place mayoral finisher Don Samuels, who will be departing the City Council at year’s end after 11 years representing the city’s heavily African-American North Side. I’ll go out on my amateur historian’s limb and call Samuels the most impactful losing Minneapolis mayoral candidate since Davis in 1971.

Samuels, 64, was a former toy-and-game company executive on his way to being a pastor when he was recruited to run for the City Council in 2002. He was hooked when a fellow pastor told him that of the 50 African-American boys that attended his church’s tutoring-plus-basketball program, maybe two would graduate from high school on time.

He concluded that a political leader could do more than a clergyman to correct that problem, Samuels related last week. While in office, he founded Peace Foundation, a youth violence prevention program that’s a predecessor organization of the three-year-old Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ). The foundation’s former executive director, his wife, Sondra Samuels, is NAZ’s president and CEO.

In the mayoral campaign, Samuels asserted early and often that education was very much the mayor’s business, notwithstanding the fact that the city’s school district is governed by an independently elected board. Only a mayor can speak to and for the whole city.

“The mayor has to do with schools whatever the mayor wants to do with schools,” he said at a campaign event on July 17. “When a mayor focuses on something, it becomes the city’s priority — if you are a leader. I want to provide leadership in the area of education in an unprecedented way.” He proposed a longer school day and year; “loving” assessments of both student and teacher performance, leading to timely correction of problems, and more freedom for school principals to make staffing decisions.

Before long, educational betterment was every candidate’s priority — not least Betsy Hodges, who won Tuesday’s election with an education position paper that stresses early education and echoes many of Samuels’ ideas.

But Samuels remained the campaign’s leading dispenser of optimism and hope — Nathan’s other two change words — that the long-festering problems of minority kids in city schools actually could be solved. NAZ gave him a proven gap-closing strategy to describe, complete with data to show that it has worked elsewhere and is beginning to work here. It’s a strategy of one-on-one involvement with “scholars” — NAZ’s word for students — and families, schools and agencies that provide help for the poor. That’s not cheap. But compared with the high future cost of an undereducated population, it’s a bargain.

Samuels didn’t win Tuesday. But his message that the achievement gap is not intractable, but can be closed with smart, concerted, hands-on intervention, permeated the 2013 city election. As a result, all of Tuesday’s winners have a mandate to maintain that priority and keep hope and optimism about Minneapolis education alive.

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