Minneapolis Mayoral Candidates Debate School Policy, Hold Food Fight In Museum

The Mayor of Minneapolis has little direct control over the city’s school system, yet education has become one of the hot campaign issues in this year’s wide-open mayoral race. A recent poll found it was the top concern of 27 percent of voters— topping all other issues, including crime. On Monday, half a dozen of the most prominent candidates in the Nov. 5 mayoral contest talked about their education plans at the Mill City Museum.

A video replay of the forum is above.

Contributor Kathryn Nelson filed this report for The UpTake:

Six of the most well known mayoral candidates took the stage Monday night to discuss Minneapolis education policy in front of a sold-out crowd of educators, policy-makers, critics and supporters. (Republican Dan Cohen was the only candidate considered to be among the leaders in the election who did not participate).

In the first debate on education policy, the candidates fielded detailed questions concerning teacher hiring and firing, complex race issues and academic improvement for almost two hours. Surprisingly to some, perhaps, the mayoral contenders largely agreed on many of the issues, including limiting out-of-school suspensions, minimizing standardized testing, utilizing testing data, supporting flexible hiring practices and encouraging cultural competence training for public school teachers.

With those agreements also came a few moments of heated discussion. One such instance came when independent candidate Cam Winton gave a scathing pop quiz, asking the audience what terms outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak recentlyused to describe opponent Mark Andrew’s education policies:
“A) “Deeply stupid” B): “Reckless” C): “Garbage” D) “Wrong;” or E) “All of the above” ?

The answer, Winton said, was “All of the above,” which he claimed was based on an interview in which Rybak ripped Andrew’s education policies. Winton’s acerbic quiz drew widespread laughs from the crowd.

An angry Andrew fired back — perhaps at fellow DFLer Rybak more than at Winton — by saying he was NOT beholden to unions or teachers. “In all of the years I have served in public office, I have been respected as an independent-thinking person,” he said. “I have a titanium spine, and I’m not bashful about standing up to any individual or any group of people. I am here tonight because I care about our kids.”

Stephanie Woodruff, who is endorsed by the Independence Party, had a few comedic moments, occasionally stumbling over answers about “Last In/First Out” (a policy that favors seniority employees during layoffs), as well as Teach for America partnerships.

“No Child Left Un-tableted”

Woodruff made a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that could cost her $53,000 — half her salary if she wins the mayor’s job. That’s because she promised to put half her mayoral salary into a separate fund that could only be tapped only if improvements in reading and writing proficiency were made with students of color. She also said she wanted computer tablets for every public school student in Minneapolis so that, “There’s no child left ‘un-tableted.’ ”

Upstaging the other candidates for a majority of the evening was Don Samuels, a DFL candodate whose statements were so animated that the event moderator, Nekima Levy-Pounds, said, “Sounds like we need to pass a collection plate … that sounded like a sermon. Wow!”

Samuel’s impassioned responses ranged from supporting the initiatives of Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson (Samuels said he would be her “human shield” if he becomes Mayor), supporting students with behavior problems, eliminating studet suspensions and encouraging coordination between Teach for America and the Minneapolis Public Schools. “I’ve been in love with Teach for America for forever, Samuels gushed.

Bringing all stakeholders to the table was DFL candidate Betsy Hodges’ mantra, with the DFLer emphasizing the need for “child-centered conversations” as well as urgency and action on education reform. Having two African-American grandchildren, Hodges said improving cultural competency in public schools is a personal goal, adding that she fights “like hell for (her grandchildren) every single day.” She also said she would like to see more Minneapolis Public Schools graduates become Minneapolis Public School teachers in the future.

Mark Andrew (DFL) — the only candidate who sent his children to public city schools, also said he would consider a no-suspension policy if elected Mayor. Insisting throughout the evening that he was not partial to any one union or group, he said his “big, bold vision” for public schools would turn around the academic struggles of the city.

Candidate Jackie Cherryhomes (another DFLer) focused on encouraging more “social, emotional learning” (such as life skills), engaging community members in all relevant discussions and minimizing impractical standardized testing. “It’s much bigger then the test. We don’t need to teach students how to test. We need to teach them how to learn,” she said.

After concluding the debate, moderator Levy-Pounds said she was pleased with the outcome of the event and said she felt that many of the candidates had deliberately thought through issues of education policy before taking the stage. But, she added, it was also clear that a number of differences, particularly surrounding school discipline as well as student behavior and parental roles, were also apparent. Levy-Pounds said she hoped that the future mayor continues to think more critically about the root problems and not just “surface answers” before taking office.

The education forum was sponsored by a number of education reform organizations, including: The African American Leadership Forum, Community Justice Project, Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Teach For America, Organizing Apprenticeship Project, Students For Education Reform, Students First and Put Kids First Minneapolis.

(You may reach contributor Kathryn Nelson at: kathryngrace86@gmail.com)


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