Sunday, October 31, 2010

Robert Panning-Miller: Rebuild (don't destroy) our public schools

Star Tribune, October 31, 2010

Recent actions of the North High community could be a model for the Minneapolis School District and school districts across this country. Instead of parents, teachers, students and community members pointing fingers at one another for what has happened, a coalition of stakeholders has recognized that only by working together can they save their school.

For years, Minneapolis School District leaders have succeeded in pushing their agenda, an agenda that has put north Minneapolis on the verge of being a community without a system of true public schools. The district's success has not come by bringing people together, but rather the opposite. Following the philosophy of the "No Child Left Behind" and the "Race to the Top" corporate leadership, the Minneapolis School District has driven wedges between various groups in the city's educational community.

The school "reform" movement that has gained strength in the past decade -- and is epitomized in the movie "Waiting for 'Superman'" -- is really about the privatization of public schools. The push for charter schools is not designed to reform public schools but to replace them. Parents are encouraged to "shop around" for the best school for their children rather than to work to make their public school a place that would best serve students and the community as a whole.

The ideology behind this "Race to the Top" movement holds that competition will improve public education. But competition always produces winners and losers. The results in north Minneapolis and in urban centers around the country make clear that the losers are the very-low-income and minority students that reformers claim to be concerned about.

Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has said that the Minneapolis public schools cannot provide an equitable education to the students of north Minneapolis, and implied that they would be better served by the district-sponsored, privately managed Noble Charter schools out of Chicago.

Providing an equitable education to all students is the responsibility of public education. Charter schools have never been shown to achieve this. To pass off responsibility is not a bold, creative step but a concession to those who want to privatize our system of public schools.

The Save North High Coalition has argued that "the district still has the responsibility to taxpayers and to Minneapolis to educate resident children. If the District can once again abandon children living in [zip code] 55411 to charters, suburban schools, and other non-neighborhood schools, then public education is for some and not others. It will be separate and unequal."

The Save North High Coalition will not accept a separate and unequal system of public education and has presented to the Minneapolis school board not only a demand to keep North High open but a commitment to work with the district to rebuild North. The hope for public education will never be found in its dismantling, but in a grass-roots effort to reinvest and rebuild it.

Public schools need to be fully funded, socially just, equitable and democratic. If North is closed and this current path continues, what school will be next? Edison? Roosevelt? Washburn?

The Minneapolis school board has said that mistakes were made. I have worked with teachers, parents, students and community members of north Minneapolis who have simply said to the board, "Let us help you." Rather than perpetuating divisions and abandoning an entire community, the Minneapolis school board must keep North High open and work to rebuild it. The community stands ready to help.

Robert Panning-Miller is a South High teacher, a member of the Save North High Coalition and an executive board member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59.

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