More than a generation ago we decided to put our kids into the Minneapolis public school system. This was partly due to money — we didn’t have much, certainly not enough to pay for private schools — and partly due to civics: If you’re going to participate in the benefits of American democracy, supporting public education seems like a duty.
We also decided that, if we were going to entrust our kids to public schools, we would do as much as we could to help those schools succeed, for our kids and everyone else’s. Those decisions were not unlike decisions made by thousands of other parents. We all faced similar challenges, and many of us took them on.
Now, nearly 40 years later, our kids are parents themselves. And we find — with great disappointment — that they are facing almost exactly the same challenges.
Sometime in the early 1980s we attended a meeting of parents who had gone before us. It was at someone’s home and it was crowded. The “veterans” of public school battles warned us of several things: watch out for teachers who don’t know what they’re doing; watch for, and follow, teachers who do; question the numbers; beware of administrators — both in the schools and at the district level.
That last one was puzzling. Surely those in charge wanted the best for our kids as much as we did? Not so, said the veterans. Their biggest battles were usually fought not in the classrooms, or the schools themselves, but against district directives that were top-down, opaque, irreversible and often wrong. Those who dared challenge them were either ignored or called racists. Or both.
The current plans to radically reshape Minneapolis Public Schools sound so much like what we heard 40 years ago that they could have been lifted from the same script. To add to the aggravation, the district, unlike almost every other public (and private) institution, continues to maintain the deadlines for approving its plan as if the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t exist.
Too many things just don’t make sense. The plan wants to “address racial disparities.” But it makes high schools in the southern part of the city less diverse. The plan wants to fix “a nagging achievement gap” but doesn’t say how — let alone provide a data-based strategy for doing that. The plan wants to account for a $20 million budget shortfall, but admits it will force hundreds of students, perhaps more, out of the district, every one of them taking their public education funding with them. The district claims it has sought and listened to input from parents, but large groups of them have said they don’t like the plan.
Then there’s the issue of busing. Forty years ago we could never understand why transportation costs were driving the entire education enterprise. We still don’t. Yes, they are significant. But we have not been able to find a breakout — how much of the district’s $620 million-plus budget is used for transportation? One number did show up in a recent Star Tribune article: The district hopes its new plan will save $7 million in transportation costs. It also says it plans to spend $6.5 million to “improve” magnet schools — most of which it is either cutting or moving. That’s not much of a dent in the budget shortfall.
There are some positive things in the plan. Reshaping magnets from learning philosophies to a focus on skills (more STEM programs, for instance) may be a good idea — though it would be nice to see some justification for that. Being more nimble about shifting facility capacity to match enrollment numbers makes sense — if the numbers are accurate. Minimizing disruption for students already in the system is a good idea — if that is, in fact, what will happen.
But these are not enough. Perhaps the wisest statement about the whole thing came from a young African-American student at a community meeting. He said he and his parents are less concerned about racial disparity, redrawing boundaries and transportation issues. They wanted a good education — in their classrooms, in their schools, for their communities.
That “good education” is what we found for our kids, more or less. It took work. Engagement. And a lot of time. There were successes and shortcomings. But both our kids graduated from Minneapolis Public Schools and went on to earn degrees at public universities.
It is disheartening to find that they — and other parents across the city — now must face the same challenges we faced in order to get a good education for their kids. They must endure yet another attempt to reshuffle and restart. The legacies of successful schools and programs will be ignored or destroyed. Decisionmaking will remain opaque. The numbers won’t add up. District administrators will claim to listen but turn out not to hear. Critics will be attacked not for their ideas but for their perceived biases.
The Minneapolis public school system should enable and enhance the efforts of parents and students to secure a good education, not fight them. This is not progress.
Doug and Jean Wilhide, along with other parents, helped write, edit and publish the Barton Bugle weekly newsletter for five years. They founded and published the South High School Tiger Rag biweekly newsletter for three years. In 1994, they won the Betty Jane Reed award for service to Minneapolis Public Schools.