We have high expectations for our elected leaders. But when their focus is on systems rather than outcomes, we must speak out and hold them accountable.
This is the case for both U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Greta Callahan, leader of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Truth and context were grossly warped in Callahan's July 21 commentary "Ilhan Omar is the choice for supporters of public schools," which criticized Don Samuels, who is challenging Omar in the Democratic primary for the Fifth District congressional seat.
As two former superintendents and a former school board chair for the Minneapolis School District, respectively, we feel compelled to set the record straight: Samuels has a strong record of working with public schools to improve academic outcomes.
While living in St. Paul, he spent more than 400 hours tutoring incoming ninth-grade boys over three years, and he was co-chair of the school board's curriculum committee for two years.
In Minneapolis, he cofounded the HOPE Collaborative, bringing leaders of high-performing schools serving low-income students to share their strategies with hundreds of enthusiastic public-school teachers and administrators. In addition, he served one term on the Minneapolis school board and three terms on the Minneapolis City Council. His years of dedicated service dwarfs a couple of hours on a picket line.
It is clear that Callahan's sympathies do not extend to the frustrated Black families whose only alternative to failing schools is to leave the district. While there are great teachers throughout the district and some high-performing schools, they too often are not located where the children who are in most need live. The district fails to teach upwards of 70-80% of students of color how to read. Nor is it Callahan's priority that children from low-income backgrounds who attend low-performing schools are significantly more likely to drop out and six times more likely to be incarcerated. This is why 15 years ago, when Samuels learned that North High failed to graduate 72% of Black males in four years, he panicked. His North High outburst hurt feelings, and he has apologized frequently. He repeatedly explained that his metaphorical language was intended to get attention for change. Fifteen years later, our district continues to have the greatest achievement gaps in the country and an ongoing exodus of students of color.
Contrary to Callahan's assertion, Samuels did have children in public schools for years, but he knows his neighbors can't wait for systems to change. Callahan understands this, too, because originally she enrolled her own son in the Edina Public Schools while working for the Minneapolis Public Schools. That's what privileged families do. But when families of color seek better options, they're blamed and ridiculed.
Callahan is also deaf to the frustration of Black teachers. Research shows that when students of color access teachers of color, there is significant growth in achievement, access to rigorous courses and graduation rates. Yet, she crows about the value of teachers and the success of the Minneapolis strike earlier this year, while ignoring the voices of Black teachers who were shut down during the strike. As leader, she should prioritize hiring and retaining teachers of color and developing all teachers to better serve students of color. Many Black teachers feel that they are mistreated and underserved by Callahan, in her role.
Samuels has great admiration for teachers. Years ago, he joined educators and families advocating for policies to support teachers of color in Minneapolis, including protections from layoffs. Sadly, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers long resisted changes to its contract that would support teachers of color.
During Samuels' tenure, the school board rehired seven teachers fired by their minority principals without any input from them. Anyone who understands good governance knows that the board violated its role. Samuels was the singular vote against the rehiring. He held the line, to the chagrin of Callahan.
We need to demand state and federal policymakers (like Rep. Omar) finally fund special education and give the teaching profession the resource boost it deserves. Callahan and Omar are prone to either-or positions. Their my-way-or-the-highway approach compromises real progress.
Don Samuels is ready to make progress, because he already has for more than 30 years.
Bernadeia Johnson is an associate professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is a former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent. Peter Hutchinson is a former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, former president of the Bush Foundation, and CEO of Peter Hutchinson Public Service Design. Catherine Shreves is former chair of the Minneapolis school board; she also served on the boards of Planned Parenthood and the Minneapolis Foundation.