Better Ed: People want out of public schools

Second in a multi-part series

Better Ed billboard as of October 2014
Better Ed billboard as of October 2014

The MSR began this series last week looking into an organization called Better Ed that has launched a now-two-year-old campaign to highlight the shortcomings of public schools, especially those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and promote “school choice” as a solution. The group is responsible for the billboard across the street from the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Davis Center at 1250 West Broadway that decries per-student costs and poor educational outcomes, especially for African American students. It also sends out periodical mailings with this message and promotes its agenda on social media.

Last week’s story began an extended interview with Better Ed’s president, Devin Foley (DF), about the organization, its goals and purpose, and their future plans. That interview continues below.

MSR: How do you address critics of school choice?

Better Ed President Devin Foley
Better Ed President Devin Foley (Photo courtesy of Better Ed)

DF: I would say two things. One is to parents in Minneapolis public schools: If you are looking at the numbers…and you’re looking at Minneapolis public schools, you’ll learn that between 2001 and 2014, the average reading at grade level percentage for students of color was only 33 percent. That’s a very long, lost history of failing a significant portion of our population, and an important group for the future of our cities.

And when we look at systemic failure, we have to ask ourselves what are we going to do? How do we get out of this? That’s a very strong argument for giving parents the freedom to find better schools, now.

Secondly, to those critics that are out there, it would appear at this point, given that there have been no significant changes as far as the ability to help our underserved children, that the system exists for adults and not for the children. And that’s a shame.

And number three, I would just say that we haven’t had true school choice. I would love to be able to see what it would look like if a parent actually gets $21,000 and is able to send their child anywhere they like. That would actually be a very equitable distribution of the wealth. It would actually show a level playing field, and if folks want to go to the public district schools, so be it. They get the $21,000; if you want to go somewhere else with your child, take that $21,000 with you, and then we can see how things look.

MSR: School choice has been tried, yet there are still critics of the way it has played out in actuality.

DF: Where it has been tried, you’ve seen successes. Number two, you can see that where school choice or vouchers are in place, there is an enormous disparity between how much a district’s school gets per student versus how much the voucher is often for. And you can see, the district schools will get three to four times as much as a voucher program. That just shows you the disparities; it’s not a level playing field.

Number two, though, is if we’re interested in something that’s working, why are there a thousand kids on a wait list to get into Global Academy, a charter school here? People are clearly wanting to get out. 17,000 kids have left [the Minneapolis public school district] over the last decade or so. Now, that’s an enormous number, and it shows that whether the adults like it or not, parents and children want to be able to have greater choices when it comes to their education, and the achievement for their children.

MSR: Will there be any more billboards?

DF: Oh yeah.

MSR: As for the spending that you highlight in your billboards and on your website, how do the spending ratios in Minneapolis compare with other places you’ve looked at?

DF: What you’ll find is that [using total expenditures divided by number of students] across the metro, there isn’t a school district that’s spending less than $12,000 per student.

In the metro Minneapolis, it’s generally considered the highest, at $21,000 per student. You will find that over in St. Paul, for instance, they spend about $17,600 or so per student per year — all other school districts generally spending $13,000 to $14,000, sometimes upwards of $15,000 per student.

MSR: Do your efforts extend anywhere outside the metro area?

DF: To a degree, yes, getting some information out there, generally through social media, email, digital communication versus postcards and billboards.

MSR: How are you funded?

DF: We are a nonprofit educational institution, so we’re funded purely by private contributions.

MSR: You are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization?

DF: Yes.

MSR: What organizations would appear on your donor list?

DF: We don’t disclose our donors, just because we want to protect their privacy; interesting things have happened to people out there.

Better Ed is just a project of Intellectual Takeout.

MSR: Are 501(c)(3)s required to disclose their donors on request?

DF: All their donors? No. Legal requirements are to disclose what we have as far as federal funding and all that. Depending on our percentages, 501(c)(3)s will list some of their donors or individuals that would give [depending on the amount given], but other than that, there’s no requirement. We are allowed to respect the privacy of any contributors. And that would be true of any c3.

MSR: What is Intellectual Takeout?

It’s a nonpartisan, educational national organization. We have a total aggregate of about 1.1 million individuals. We’ve reached, usually, three to five million; last week we reached about 8.5, 8.7 million people with our information through social media.

MSR: Where is Intellectual Takeout based?

DF: Here in Bloomington.

MSR: What is the relationship between Better Ed and Intellectual Takeout?

DF: Better Ed is a project, so it runs under its own name; it does business as Better Ed, but it is still governed by Intellectual Takeout’s board of directors.

Imagine if you were the Humane Society and you had started a project called “Helping Cats.” And Helping Cats is out there doing its thing… It’s still underneath the Humane Society, as far as how it operates, but it’s out there just as a project that’s out there helping cats.

Coming up in this series:

Would children in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, especially African American students, be likely to get a better education if their parents could simply receive a voucher for the cost of that public school education (variously estimated at between $14,000 and $21,000 per student per year) and apply it to the schools of their choice, whether charter, parochial or private? Better Ed’s answer to that question is clearly a resounding yes, and promoting just such choice is at the heart of their campaign.

Next this series will ask other stakeholders in the educational arena to help clarify for our readers the pros and cons of what might arguably be the most fundamental ideological issue at stake in the debate over how best to educate our children and close the achievement gap between Black and White students. Should our collective public investment in public schools continue, or should parents be enabled to “take the money and run,” that is, take tax funds currently dedicated to public education and apply them to parochial (religious) or secular private school tuition if they so choose?

 

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

Read more in the series on Better Ed:

First installment: Public schools foe Better Ed campaigns for school choice