Things can get murky in the fight for public education when some very different groups share similar goals.
By Corey Mitchell, Star Tribune
December 1, 2010
Amidst all the talk about public and charter schools in the education documentary "Waiting for Superman," ex-Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee made a statement that rings true for superintendents across the country."If you want to quickly become the most unpopular person in a city, tell them you want to close down a school," Rhee said.
Just a few months into her new job, Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson probably knows what Rhee meant. None of Johnson's decisions has drawn as much scrutiny as her recommendations to shut down two north Minneapolis schools.
Closing North High, a school that has existed in some form for more than a century, and Cityview, a building the district spent $19 million to open in 1999, is a surefire way to upset teachers, alumni and residents. But her plan to replace both with charter schools brought out an entirely different crowd as well.
In a struggle that has paired strange bedfellows, a former teacher's union president and a band of self-described socialists teamed with north Minneapolis residents to pull North High back from the brink after Johnson's recommendation to close it.
Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota -- PEJAM for short -- played a role in the school board's decision to keep the current North High open while residents and alumni attempt to recruit students for a new 500-student specialty school that could replace it.
PEJAM's vocal leaders, South High School teacher Robert Panning-Miller and community organizers Ty Moore and Teddy Shibabaw, made fiery speeches and hosted rallies in the ramp-up to the North decision. Some, including school board member Chris Stewart, questioned their motives: Moore and Shibabaw are organizers with the Minneapolis branch of Socialist Alternative.
"Public education is socialism by my definition," Panning-Miller said. The socialist ties are "not something that we're hiding from, but it's not something that we latch onto, either," he added.
Building a base
PEJAM's leaders hope to assume a similar role in Minneapolis as groups such as the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) in New York and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in Chicago.
The local leaders see themselves and their professed mission -- uniting educators, students and residents, and protecting teachers and schools in the process -- as more practical than radical. They oppose both closing schools and establishing charter schools.
Though charter schools are, by law, public schools funded by public dollars, PEJAM backers use the phrase "privatization of public education" to describe the expansion of charter schools. The Minneapolis School District "should fix public education instead of handing the responsibility to some other group," Shibabaw said.
"Public education is essential to a democratic society," Panning-Miller said.
Superintendent Johnson and Minneapolis school board members agree with that sentiment, but there's disagreement over tactics. Unlike PEJAM, Johnson wants to close schools where students struggle on state tests year after year. As part of the Minneapolis schools' five-year strategic plan, sponsoring charter schools is a tool at the district's disposal to boost achievement. That doesn't sit well with PEJAM and other supporters of traditional public schools.
PEJAM organizers say their involvement isn't much different than that of the frustrated parent who runs for school board. The North High campaign allowed PEJAM to capitalize on such frustration. Now its leaders have no plans to disappear. Organizers showed up last week, arguing against the closing of Cityview. Board members have postponed their decision on the school, located at 3350 N. Fourth St.
While PEJAM's effort has roots in north Minneapolis, it likely will spread. With the district's declining population, board members have said that Minneapolis may need only four or five traditional high schools; it now has seven.
Any move to shut another school will provide PEJAM with a chance to dust off its bullhorns and begin protests and e-mail blasts anew. The group also plans to address state-level issues with the Legislature. "We look forward to becoming a growing voice in the education debate," Moore said. "We don't see the decline of public education as inevitable."
Neither does Johnson. But now she has yet another factor, besides enrollment and academics, to consider when she recommends closing a school.