I’ve been having a lot of conversations with fellow and future MPS parents about the MPS Comprehensive District Design and thought I’d jot down a few takeaways here.
Note: if any of my language regarding race is outdated by 2020 standards, understand that I’m a mid-40’s white guy who’s trying to keep up. Shoot me a message or leave a comment if you have any constructive feedback about that.
The motivation for change appears to be primarily financial. If your budget is shrinking, or at least not growing as fast as costs, you clearly need to do something about that.
Why is there a budget challenge? Because fewer school-aged children in Minneapolis have been attending Minneapolis Public Schools than in the past. There are a variety of alternatives, with charter schools, nearby districts, and private schools being three common ones.
Every time a student leaves the district a lot of money leaves with them.
So, if you want to close the budget gap you have a few options. Those include cutting costs, raising additional revenue, or stopping/reversing the enrollment trend.
The latter has the largest potential to solve budget problems. Cost-cutting to address declining enrollment could exacerbate declining enrollment. Raising additional revenue through a tax levy just happened so that’s not on the table right now.
If you wanted to reverse declining enrollment what would you do? Perhaps talk to the families who are leaving the district to ask them why they’re leaving? That’s what MPS did. And they found that the families leaving are largely African American, Hispanic, and East African immigrant families. And they found that the reasons they’re choosing to leave the district are primarily:
- Not feeling safe in the schools
- Not feeling welcome in the schools
- Not feeling that the schools are preparing their children for the future.
This – to me – is critical to understanding the proposed changes.
Two Different Conversations
I had a chance to attend a recent CDD meeting at Justice Page Middle School. The auditorium was packed with parents interested in hearing about the plan. Here is Justice Page’s racial breakdown:
Two or more races:1.5%
I note that because the attendees at the meeting were around 98% white. The questions asked were fine but none of the questions asked addressed the three bullet points I listed above. Thankfully, MPS appears to be seeking out feedback from families who don’t/won’t/can’t attend public hearings. This is great because a major flaw of public meetings is that the attendees often falsely believe that the opinions shared at the meetings reflect the opinions of all stakeholders.
The question that came closest to hitting those bullet points was something like, “How are the proposed changes going to improve the racial integration of our schools?” This is a fair question but I don’t think it’s hitting the core concerns of the families who are leaving. As I understand it, they’re not leaving because the schools they attend aren’t integrated enough, or that they (families with non-white students) aren’t attending schools with enough white students.
Increased school integration does not appear to be at the top of the list of concerns among families leaving the district. Here’s one possible scenario: a Somali family lives in a part of town where they’re not particularly impressed with their neighborhood school so they choose to put their kid on a bus across town to a school that’s known for having better results. Their kid doesn’t feel welcome at that school and comes home crying after being picked on during long bus rides. The school may be a good school on paper but the experience for that doesn’t mean that it’s a great experience for all students. So, that family looks at other options and they find a charter school that welcomes Somali families. The parents think, “This school may not be any better than where my child is going now, but at least they’ll feel welcome at school and not come home crying.”
Will White Families Leave?
The CDD is a big change and certainly disruptive and any time there’s change there will be people who reevaluate all of their school options. This includes families who are really happy with the status quo. If boundary changes will redirect your children to schools that weren’t your first choice, or a magnet school you love is being demagnetized and turned back into a neighborhood school, those are reasons for concern.
For example, if Spanish immersion is a must-have for a family and scaling back or moving Windom’s program is a deal-breaker, that could cost MPS some students. Dowling’s current environmental program was cited at the Justice Page hearing. A representative from MPS said that it polled poorly among magnet choices. There are families who love Dowling today because it has the environmental program, the Special Needs program, the large campus, the integrated student body, and the success of students in that environment. The bet the school board is making is that the white families who attend schools like Dowling will still have great academic options available for their kids.
Will this work?
I don’t know. To me, it sounds good on paper. It sounds like MPS has identified the root causes of why families are leaving and has a plan to address those concerns.
I’m concerned about whether the disruption involved in centrally locating magnets is too much. A successful magnet program needs to have a strong emphasis and a strong brand to convince families living within walking distance of good schools to put their kids on buses. We know that families will do that once they’re convinced that a program is good, but that doesn’t happen overnight. At least not without a strong market program that convinces families that the school will be a strong school on day one.
I’m concerned that charter schools are offering programs that the CDD doesn’t fully address. If, say, Somali families are leaving for Somali-specific charter schools, the CDD may not be going far enough to address those concerns. Focusing more on community schools – and, hopefully, giving those schools the resources they need to succeed – could be a step in that direction, but does it go far enough?
I’m concerned that middle/upper-class white families will defend the status quo that has served them well at the expense of change that would help underserved families and the citywide budget challenges.
I’m concerned that middle/upper-class white families underestimate how good their neighborhood schools are and will irrationally opt-out of a system that would serve their children well.