Public schools foe Better Ed campaigns for school choice

Black student achievement gap a target of group’s activity

First in a multi-part series
Better Ed billboard as of October 2014
Better Ed billboard as of October 2014

Nearly two years ago a billboard appeared in North Minneapolis that raised quite a few eyebrows. Strategically placed across the street from the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Davis Center at 1250 West Broadway, the billboard declared, “Minneapolis Public Schools spends $525,000 per classroom of 25 students…PER YEAR.”

The billboard is still there today with particular details changing from time to time but the basic message critical of public school performance remaining unchanged.

The tactic has apparently served its purpose, attracting attention and drawing many comments. The Minnesota Department of Education called the billboard “misleading” and criticized the methodology used to arrive at the figures. It charged that the numbers probably included mortgage expenditures and construction costs, and that the true cost per Minneapolis student in 2013-2014 was probably closer to $14,000, which is not far off from the statewide average and would total $350,000 per classroom of 25.

Better Ed, the group behind the billboard, flatly denied the criticism. Better Ed has also mailed out an unknown number of postcard-size (8.5 by 5.5 inch) flyers focusing on Black students’ under-performance in the St. Paul and Minneapolis schools and promoting school choice. The MSR has received more than half a dozen of these to date.

Upon learning that Better Ed and its parent organization, Intellectual Takeout, intend further activities that include more billboards and mailings, we spoke with Better Ed’s president, Devin Foley, about the organization, its goals and purpose, and their future plans.

The following interview was conducted by telephone. We have endeavored to leave Mr. Foley’s comments (DF) as intact as possible. We emailed follow-up questions and intend to publish those results upon receipt of his responses.


MSR: What is Better Ed and what do you do?

DF: We’re a nonprofit educational institution, and our goal is to awaken the public to what’s happening in their local schools, as far as high spending and low achievement, and then to be able to offer solutions, such as school choice and greater educational freedom, both for educators as well as parents.

MSR: How do you go about doing that?

DF: Talking to the public and getting the information directly in front of them: postcards; billboards, of course; Facebook; social media; email; our website; presentations — any way that we can do it.

MSR: In what other communities have you posted billboards besides North Minneapolis?

DF: Right now, we’ve just had it in North Minneapolis.

MSR: Why the focus there?

DF: We believe that there is significant need to address what is happening in the Minneapolis public schools, spending so much per student, and over 42 percent of all students being at grade level for reading and less than, actually, 25 percent of all African American students reading at grade level. We believe that’s a place that we need to start our efforts, and we’ve been expanding outward from there.

MSR: How does North Minneapolis compare with the rest of Minnesota?

DF: When we started, Minneapolis actually was worse than St. Paul. In that time, we’ve seen Minneapolis — if you were to rank the 41 metro area school districts by reading proficiency — Minneapolis is now fourth from the bottom, with 42 percent reading at grade level. And that’s overall for all of the students.

Columbia Heights is a hair lower, at 39 percent; St. Paul public schools have actually dropped down to 38 percent. Brooklyn Center only has 32 percent of their children reading at grade level. We’ve been getting those numbers out as well.

 

MSR: Do you do any lobbying — legislature, school boards, public appearances, etc?

DF: Yes. I’ve done presentations, testified at the Capitol to various elected officials, and various thought leaders in the community have called upon me or my staff to meet and discuss.

As far as specifically lobbying, our goal is to first get the information out to the public; it’s really up to the parents. The parents believe that the $21,000 per student is a good investment, particularly an African American parent, when only 25 percent or less of African American students are reading at grade level, or something where they look at it and say, “You know what? If I had $21,000 and a voucher or education savings account, I would go somewhere else and find a better school for my child.”

That’s the kind of discussion that we’re hoping to foster right now.

MSR: What is your prescription for fixing the schools?

DF: Greater choice. If you look at some of the things that are taking place as far as charter schools, as well as, of course, parochial and private schools that are in Minneapolis public school districts that are serving what are oftentimes disadvantaged kids from real tough backgrounds, those schools are often doing quite well with those kids.

It reflects the opportunity to have sort of an “organic,” bottom-up approach to education, being able to understand that what one child may need coming from a tougher background is different from another. But the goal is to be able to provide an excellent education for all, and that’s our hope.

How you go about doing that from a policy perspective is generally greater choice, school choice. It provides the means to be able to see that organic development. And the critical part of that would mean that the funding for education should follow the child.

MSR: So school choice is your primary solution?

DF: It would be a systemic change. A paradigm shift. That’s just because [if] you have choice doesn’t mean that necessarily it’s going to be that perfect solution all the time.

It cannot be the solution in and of itself. What it does is allow for other solutions and other approaches, other education philosophies, other curriculum and different ways of doing education to be developed and to be assessed, and in some ways to be able to compete, or just to be able to reach different demographic groups of children that need different approaches.

 

Our series on Better Ed will continue as we learn more about the organization, its supporters and detractors. Next week: Better Ed responds to its critics.

Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to ipeterson@spokesman-recorder.com.