Community News & Voices

No “Bad Hombres” Here: Why You Should Care About The School Board Race Anyway

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The other day, my 10-year-old asked me to help her email President Obama.  She had seen footage of a police officer humiliating a law-abiding African American man in a suburb near us, and she wanted to ask the President for help.

“Why not the Department of Justice?”, I suggested.  “They’ve been working with cities like Cleveland to give anti-bias training to their police departments.” She considered this, and decided, “Nah. The President just makes me feel more special.” In this campaign year, I’ve noticed many of my peers making a similar choice: focusing on the circus of the Presidential campaign, while ignoring local races that have a significant impact on their day-to-day lives.

There has been no sensationalism in the 2016 school board race so far. No tapes have been leaked, no e-mail servers combed through, and not even a single “Aleppo moment.” But any citizen of Minneapolis who cares about our schools should be paying attention to the school board race.

One such race is the campaign for Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education. Yes, the next President of the United States will affect the education children receive across the country; but the nine Directors of the Minneapolis Board of Education can shape the future of our city more directly, more immediately, and much more dramatically. Here are just a few of the questions that will be decided by your vote:

Who gets an education, and where?
If your child is on the autism spectrum, struggles to read, or has cerebral palsy, how will Minneapolis Public Schools support them? Both of the candidates for our at-large school board seat have talked about special education services in MPS, but their approaches are different: incumbent Kim Ellison is a strong proponent of alternative schools, which provide services not often found in traditional public schools and often serve large concentrations of students with special needs. Doug Mann, in his 10th run for public office in Minneapolis, focuses on moving such students into mainstream classrooms more quickly.  Your choice for Director at-large will impact the nearly 6,500 students currently receiving special education services through Minneapolis Public Schools.

How important is standardized testing?
If you live in District 4, your vote could change Minneapolis Public Schools’ approach to that question. Bob Walser unequivocally claims that “standardized tests are of very limited use.”  He goes on to say that “to use [these tests] for significant decisions does… unacceptable violence to the vulnerable and unique learners in our care.”  His opponent, incumbent Josh Reimnitz, is endorsed by Pam Costain and Alberto Monserrate, two education reformers (and former School Board members) who view standardized testing as an essential tool in analyzing the rigor and equity of schools around the state. His affiliation with Teach for America and the Breakthrough Collaborative also indicates a data-driven, generally pro-testing approach.  While both candidates support arts education, relationship-building between teachers and students, and site-based decision making, they could not be more different when it comes to the role of standards-based student assessments.

Should police be in our schools?
At a recent forum on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, candidates answered questions from young men who had attended Minneapolis Public Schools and are now incarcerated.  These are the people our system has failed the most, and yet here they were: coming back to learn about how the current candidates will support our next generation of young men. This humbling moment may have moved all of our candidates, but only some candidates articulated clear steps that our schools can take to do better.

Kerry Jo Felder (District 2), a graduate of the Summatech program at North High, was the first to acknowledge that adults within the school system hold responsibility in the pipeline.  “We categorize students and hold grudges against them,” she said. Claiming that 74% of first arrests happen inside schools, she called for moving funding from police contracts to mental health counselors and school-hospital partnerships.  She would consider banning police, or School Resource Officers, from high schools, “depending on the school and the situation.”  She advocates opening more summer schools on the North Side, changing district policy to extend summer school services to students who are the farthest behind (instead of the ones who are nearly proficient), and opening Full Service Community Schools to empower parents and community leaders. Felder’s opponent, Kimberly Caprini, indicated a lack of transparency about how School Resource Officers are trained for their role. In general, she lobbied for more culturally diverse teachers through initiatives like the “Grow Your Own” teacher development programs, and increased cultural competence among students by making ethnic studies a requirement for graduation. Through such broad efforts, she said, “we will stop seeing our young African American boys as a threat.”

District 6 showed a similar contrast between general ideas and specific steps for action. Ira Jourdain, whose background is in human services, cited the fights his children (MPS alumni) told him about, and supposed that those are the main reason for student arrests. He believes that more social workers and more restorative justice practices may eventually eliminate the need for School Resource Officers. His opponent, Tracine Asberry (District 6 incumbent), went far deeper into specifics on the issue: she called for making International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses more available to non-white boys, and adopting the specific restorative justice practices she saw when she visited the Office of Black Male Achievement in Oakland, CA. She insisted that change can begin with adults involving students in more decisions, and cited concrete examples of how she has done this in her role as Executive Director of St. Paul Youth Services. Asberry was one of only two votes not to renew the contract for School Resource Officers, calling it “a blank check with too much liberty for police.” “We need to re-imagine education without policing”, she urged, “the school-to-prison pipeline is not rocket science; it’s systemic racism. We have adult behaviors that refuse to change, but I’ll continue to push doing things differently–we can’t afford to wait until people feel all right with it.”

There has been no sensationalism in the 2016 school board race so far. No tapes have been leaked, no e-mail servers combed through, and not even a single “Aleppo moment.” But any citizen of Minneapolis who cares about our schools should be paying attention to this race.  Our city’s schools impact local jobs, poverty, culture, and crime; if we want to affect any of those things, our choices for school board may matter even more than our vote for President.  Let’s accept the responsibility of becoming informed about the local races that matter.

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