Third in a multi-part series
The MSR began this series two weeks ago 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 we published the second part of a telephone interview with Better Ed president Devin Foley. We then submitted several follow up questions by email. The questions we asked and the responses we received are as follows:
Our own investigation into school vouchers and charter schools — both advocated by Better Ed — revealed criticisms and concerns about those approaches to education on racial discrimination grounds. Noting that, we asked Foley to explain Better Ed’s aggressive advocacy of vouchers and charter schools in North Minneapolis, which has probably the highest concentration of Black people in the state.
Foley responded, “Currently, less than 25 percent of African American students in Minneapolis are reading at grade level while nearly 80 percent of their White peers are reading at grade level. The existing education system seems to be unable or unwilling to help children of color despite spending $21,000 per student. Given such a failure of education, we believe that the parents should be freed to find the best schools for their children through a voucher-type program.”
Referring to Better Ed’s North Minneapolis focus, we asked whether Better Ed works with, or has endorsements from any organizations representing people of color, and whether they have sought or received any input or support from any such organization.
Foley replied, “We always enjoy meeting with and listening to all people, but we do not seek endorsements from any organizations. We are always listening to the public, institutions and individuals alike.”
In answer to our query about whether Better Ed is affiliated with any other like-minded organizations, Foley said “At this time, we have no official partners, but we do meet and share with other groups,” but declined naming any.
High poverty rates in communities of color is a well-documented contributor to the education gap found in those communities. Asked to comment, Foley said, “Poverty, family breakdown, racism, etc. all impact a child’s ability to learn. If the current education system is unable to help kids coming from tough backgrounds, it is time for a new education system.”
Referring to cultural awareness and sensitivity training for teachers, Foley commented that “Naturally, cultural awareness is important. More importantly, parents should have the freedom to find the best schools and cultures for their children.”
“Does Better Ed propose any solutions to any of the societal/socioeconomic factors affecting education?” we asked. In response, Foley asked, “Isn’t education supposed to help students rise above the circumstances of their birth? Again, if Minneapolis Public Schools can’t do that at $21,000 per student, then perhaps the parents should be able to spend that money elsewhere.”
In light of public school funding being based on property taxes for funding in many areas, we asked Foley to comment on the tax-base disparities in communities of color compared to more affluent areas. “Certainly there are differences,” Foley responded. “Minneapolis spends $21,000 per student, which is a lot higher than school districts like Edina or Wayzata, and gets the majority of its funding from outside of the district.”
In our telephone conversation, Foley said, in part, “…Various thought leaders in the community have called upon me or my staff to meet and discuss.” We asked Foley to name those leaders, but he declined, saying “I can, but those conversations are private.”
We also asked if any educators were involved in drafting Better Ed’s prescriptions and solutions for fixing education. Foley’s reply was a terse “Yes.” He did not name those educators.
We asked if, rather than advocating that parents remove their children from under-performing schools, it might be desirable to make systemic changes that would improve all the public schools.
“We don’t pretend to know the solution for every student’s situation,” Foley said. “By allowing for more choice in education, we give the opportunity to succeed to those who do know how to address different situations.”
Some of Better Ed’s proposals seem to come close to proposing privatizing education. When asked whether this was an accurate impression, Foley said, “If taxpayers are supporting education of children for the common good, we’re simply proposing that the dollars follow the student, allowing the student to get the best education possible, thereby benefiting the child and the common good.”
We asked whether Better Ed had ever analyzed or evaluated the actual teaching methods used in the public schools; Foley replied, “To a degree” but did not elaborate.
Has Better Ed looked at the impact class size and teacher to student ratios have on education? “Yes,” Foley said, but did not further elaborate.
Intellectual Takeout, Better Ed’s parent group, makes reference to a concept called “subsidiarity” regarding education. We asked Foley to explain:
“Subsidiarity is simply the idea that the smallest unit of society should be the first to deal with challenges and responsibilities; the family raises the child, the federal government defends the nation, and there is a lot of grey in between,” Foley replied. “When one unit finds itself incapable of meeting the challenge or responsibility, then it moves up a level — while the family can’t deal with everything in society, that doesn’t mean the federal government should be involved with everything,” which would apparently amount to advocating decentralizing education and limiting the involvement of government.
“How would decentralizing education improve education?” we asked.
Foley: “As for education, we have seen enormous centralization in the last 50-plus years. We have gone from 7,000 school districts to less than 400. Decentralization is never a perfect solution on its own, but when a centralized education system is failing, decentralization allows for other models of education to be tried.
“Currently, less than 60 percent of all students in Minnesota are reading at grade level. In Minneapolis, only 42 percent of all students are reading at grade level. It’s time to think about how to fix the problems we face and if we need more local, organic solutions, so be it.”
Standardized testing has been a controversial issue in education, and we asked Foley to explain Better Ed’s position on the topic. Foley’s entire response was, “As Robert F. Kennedy argued, you need an independent means of assessing student progress.”
We queried how “subsidiarity” and decentralization would be consistent with standardized testing, which would seem to require some sort of central authority or entity to devise, administer, and evaluate results, for consistency’s sake, if nothing else. We have yet to receive a response to this question.
Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next in the series: Others concerned with the future of public schooling weigh in on Better Ed’s campaign.
Read more in the series on Better Ed:
First installment: Public schools foe Better Ed campaigns for school choice
Second installment: Better Ed: People want out of public schools