Tuesday, October 19, 2004

MPR’s town hall meeting was painful

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:53 AM |  

I can’t even take comfort in the fact that I no longer have children in the K-12 public schools. Education is too important -- not to mention too publicly expensive -- to take an it-doesn’t-affect-me personally attitude. And if the MPR town hall meeting to address the Minnesota’s achievement gap is any indication, public education is in big trouble.

The MPR meeting was a “town hall” meeting in the same sense that putting both presidential candidates on the same stage is a “debate.” MPR’s midmorning host, Kerri Miller, acted as moderator for a panel consisting of Thandiwe Peebles, superintendent of Minneapolis schools; Pat Harvey, superintendent of St. Paul schools; and Alice Seagren, Minnesota education commissioner.

Miller took suggestions from the audience at large and from a group of six of us who were asked to present ideas we had posted to MPR‘s online “Idea Generator,” then turning them over to the panel for their comments. There was no interaction, no real discussion.

Judging from the audience questions, the majority of the 200 or so people were folks with a stake in education -- teachers, school board members, college education professors and a few parents who’d likely have those signs in their yard reading “Willing to pay more taxes for education.”

Like I said, the meeting was painful. The very first “suggestion” from our group of six was to “require” parental participation in a child’s academic life. From the Idea Generator --
Require parental participation in child's academic life: Require the parent to sign off on homework and include a question the parent must answer to reduce forged signatures. If the parent refuses to participate or is unwilling for whatever reason, assign a guardian ad litem or even a social worker/mentor in their place. This will bring child into the purview of "the system," but it will also let the child know that there is someone that cares about them, that they are not alone in their struggles, and it will increase his/her interaction in school, community activities, and decrease negative behaviors and interactions.
There were some insightful observations. One woman that worked as a consultant with major corporations noted that many large Minnesota companies hire minorities from outside the state to meet diversity standards rather than hire from the local pool -- perhaps a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but nonetheless alarming. Another insight -- the education system tends to expect less of children of color, not holding them to rigid standards. The panel responded to these and other observations with a lot of head nodding and “Chicken Little” urgency but not much substance.

I presented my Universal Tuition Tax Credit suggestion fairly early in the program. It was an abbreviation of the remarks posted here. Miller shuffled the suggestion to Pat Harvey, who ignored that I was talking about K-12 school choice and started talking about higher education. When I corrected her, she thanked me for setting the record straight, but nonetheless finished up her thought. Miller didn’t purse the topic with either Superintendent Peebles or Commissioner Seagren -- even though a tuition tax credit is state issue. If it’s not officially a dirty word, “school choice” should not be uttered in polite educational company.

The meeting was downhill from there. “Institutional racism” was a frequently flayed whipping boy. So was the more relevant lack of opportunity for children of color, which could be solved by providing more funding for public education, not “voucher schemes.”

My main frustration was that most of the suggestions for closing the gap were one-off program ideas or attitude adjustments, which the panel acknowledged as “excellent ideas” that they “needed to look into” or that they were “already addressing” and making “good progress” on. My tuition tax credit suggestion was the only idea that drove to systemic change in the system. Many of the issues that were raised in later suggestions -- such as the “opportunity gap” -- are all addressed by a tuition tax credit that would enable even low-income families the same opportunity to school choice that only the well-to-do have today. But in the MPR format, this couldn’t be pointed out.

There is no polite way to say it -- there simply was no educational leadership present on the Penumbra Theatre stage last night.

I’m sure the two superintendents are able administrators, but when it came to education reform, they both opted for higher level clichés, the need for more “emphasis” (read “funding“) for education and support for the notion that the system just needs some tweaking rather than admit or suggest any systemic changes.

This is the second time I’ve seen Commissioner Seagren speak, and both times I sensed she was working harder at not being former Commissioner Yecke than she was at setting any kind of an education agenda.

Education is a public good, and we all have a vested interest in it, which unfortunately many without children in public schools, don’t recognize. Consequently, public education is left in the hands of people more interested in preserving the process that actually improving education.

For another view on education reform, visit the Partnership for Choice in Education website -- especially its “Educating Minnesota -- School Choice a National Perspective” speakers series, sponsored jointly with the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the Minnesota Citizens League. I'd urge everyone who can to attend one of these noontime speakers.

Education is an issue that affects all of us.

(The program was recorded and will be broadcast on MPR' Midmorning Program on October 22nd at 9:00 a.m. A little goes a long way, but one should give a listen just to get a taste of what passes for education reform.)

UPDATE -- The Universal Tuition Tax Credit was cut from the broadcast version