Voter's Guide: Mayoral candidates share education platforms

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October 16, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Education policy is a surprisingly hot topic in this year’s mayoral contest, and it’s a topic, once raised, that always comes with this caveat: Minneapolis’ mayor has no direct power over local schools.

What he does have, Mayor R.T. Rybak has made clear in recent interviews, is an obligation, for the future of the city, to engage with schools, the mayoral megaphone that comes with the office and the opportunity to partner — or not — with the superintendent. 

With that in mind, the Journals sent the eight leading candidates several questions on education in September. We’ll focus on their responses to just one of those questions, the one that elicited the most in-depth and varied responses from the candidates:

“Minneapolis has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country between white students and students of color. How will you partner with schools to help close that gap?”

Most of the written responses ran well over a suggested word limit, so they’ve been summarized below. More detailed education policy statements can be found on most of the candidates’ websites. 

 

Mark Andrew said Minneapolis “is a modern day ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” where nearly 10 percent of district students experience homelessness, graduation rates for children of color are “unacceptable” and not all children arrive at school ready to learn. 

“This is why one of my top priorities as mayor will be to care for every one of our city’s children by ensuring that they are educated and trained for tomorrow’s jobs,” Andrew wrote.

Andrew, a DFLer, described three education strategies: supporting Minneapolis Public Schools and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson; addressing needs outside of schools through safe neighborhoods, stable housing and economic opportunity; and evolving the Youth Coordinating Board “into a broader partnership focused solely on ensuring success for every Minneapolis child.”

Like the other candidates, Andrew was asked about an ongoing debate in education that often pits “reformers” against teachers unions. A mayor should focus on leadership, not ideology, he said.

“I firmly support collective bargaining but changes need to be made in order to ensure every child in Minneapolis has access to high-quality, equitable education,” he wrote.

 

“In talking with friends who are educators in the MPS [Minneapolis Public Schools] system,” began Jackie Cherryhomes, “it is clear that many of our young people are living in stressful environments, are in survival mode and thus are unable to focus on school.”

Cherryhomes, a DFL candidate, said she’d work to ensure “our families are strong” by promoting stable housing, jobs and safe neighborhoods. Young people don’t come to school prepared to learn if they move frequently, experience the stress of unemployment at home or feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, she continued.

Cherryhomes lamented that the debate over education policy had turned into an “ideological battleground.”

“All parties must put their own egos aside and come to the table ready to compromise for the sake of the students,” she wrote. “It is the mayor’s role to convene that discussion.”

 

Dan Cohen said Minneapolis’ achievement gap is often described as a gap between black students and white students when the real divide is between rich and poor families.

“The programs that we have directed at the situation have failed to close the gap because the black/white gap is a false premise,” Cohen wrote.

He cited “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” a 2012 book by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.

“Simply stated, a kid who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from, who doesn’t know if he has a roof over his head, whose single mom doesn’t have the time, money or energy left after a hard day’s work to be a parent, is not going to care much about grades,” he wrote.

Cohen, an independent candidate, would focus on employment, especially for fathers, who he said are often absent because they can’t support their families.

Cohen might support a longer school year if it could be shown to help close the achievement gap. He tends to “lean toward the reformers” in the education debate, and doesn’t care for “union rules that favor seniority over performance,” he wrote.

 

Bob Fine said he’d already demonstrated an ability to work with the district and School Board as a Park Board commissioner, and that he’d “take a strong leadership role in addressing the most critical issues” in schools if elected.

Through an approach Fine called “collaborative leadership,” he’d work with the schools on a list of priorities: holding principals accountable for success at their schools; fairly evaluating teachers and principals; training educators in cultural competency; recruiting more teachers of color; targeting job, internship and volunteer programs to students in danger of dropping-out; partnering with the Park Board; and prioritizing smaller class sizes.

Fine, a DFLer, said the education debate shouldn’t come down to an either-or choice between unions and reformers.

“Teacher unions play an important role in our education system, as do leaders who are looking for alternative ways to educate our youth,” he wrote. “Teachers with education degrees deserve to be fairly compensated for their work, and kids deserve teachers who have appropriate training and experience.”

 

Betsy Hodges, a DFL candidate, said she would support Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s SHIFT plan, an initiative to give low-performing schools more autonomy, including some freedom from the teacher hiring and placement rules, in exchange for results. If elected, Hodges pledged to lead a citywide conversation on “programs and innovations that work for our children — like more time in school, more diverse teachers, more flexible education standards, and more.”

“That means putting children ahead of adult-centered conflicts to transform our debate into a child-centered, constructive conversation,” she continued.

Hodges’ Cradle-to-K education initiative, which is described in fuller detail on her campaign website, would provide additional educational and childcare resources to pregnant women and young children. She cites a link between disparities in kindergarten readiness and graduation rates later in life.

Her plan also calls for a mayoral cabinet to guide Cradle-to-K, with members representing the city’s public, private and nonprofit sectors.

 

“I will be unlike any mayor the City of Minneapolis has ever seen when it comes to engagement and courageous partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools,” wrote Don Samuels. “I’m the only candidate with a comprehensive education plan that will close the achievement gap.”

The Ward 5 City Council member highlighted one aspect of an education plan described in more detail on his campaign website: Trust for Innovation in Minneapolis Education, or TIME, a program that would “reward schools that are successful in closing the achievement gap by utilizing new and innovative practices, help support schools that are struggling with what they need to raise outcomes and fund new technology so that our kids are working with the most up to date technology in our classrooms.”

Samuels, a DFLer, described the reformer-union split as a “false dichotomy,” adding that the education debate should focus on outcomes, not labels. He emphasized the need for early childhood education and strong leadership in schools. 

 

Cam Winton laid out a five-point initiative for closing a gap he said was not just in achievement, but opportunity. Those points included: cutting “red tape” to help businesses create more jobs for parents; challenging parents (“especially my fellow fathers”) to be strong role models and provide stable homes; increasing public safety resources so students feel safe; using “every tool in our toolkit,” including charter schools and Teach for America teachers; and supporting specific changes to district policies and its teachers contract.

Those changes included: an end to “last in, first out” rules; teacher pay-for-performance plans; increased instructional time; and the routine use of student data to guide instruction.

Winton, an independent candidate, was the only candidate who came out strongly for giving the Minneapolis mayor a direct role in schools through the power to appoint School Board members. He’d replace the at-large representatives — currently three of nine members — with appointees.

He was also the only candidate to “loudly [and] proudly” declare himself a reformer.

 

If elected, Stephanie Woodruff pledged to “keep our children at the top of the city’s agenda.”

Woodruff supports Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s SHIFT plan. Emphasizing the importance of mentorship and community involvement in schools, she’d aim to pair each middle school student with a mentor who could see that student through to high school graduation.

Woodruff, a DFLer endorsed by the Independence Party, would scale-up Rybak’s signature STEP-UP youth employment initiative and create what she called “neighborhood Learning Labs” that would give students access to technology and host “well-supervised after-school activities.”

Like many of the other candidates, Woodruff said she disliked the labels attached to the various sides in the education debate. But she said Minneapolis must “acknowledge that there is a problem” when black and Latino students have a much lower four-year graduation rate than white and Asian students.