By Steve Gunn

MINNEAPOLIS – A lot of teachers union leaders share an odd characteristic.

band aid truth hurtsThey’re all for free speech and expression, as long as the message happens to match their views on any particular subject.

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Yet they are anxious to have union critics muzzled, because they believe their opinions are wrong and harmful. School administrators sometimes share that point of view, particularly on questions of public school reform.

The old guard simply doesn’t like the boat to be rocked, even if it’s obvious that the boat is sinking.

But this cynical alliance of the status quo seems to be crumbling in the Minneapolis school district, and that can only be considered good news.

The president of the powerful Minneapolis Federation of Teachers recently demanded that the school district sever all connections with a state education reform campaign, after a guest speaker at a conference hosted by the campaign talked honestly about the damage unions have done to public schools.

“We demand Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson immediately end the partnership with the anti-teacher RESET campaign,” wrote Lynn Nordgren, president of the union, in an open letter published by a local newspaper.

But Superintendent Johnson, to her credit, refused to be bullied by the union. She responded with a letter of her own, addressed to teachers of the district.

“RESET is an acronym for five proven strategies for creating pre K-12 schools where every child succeeds,” Johnson wrote. “RESET stands for real time use of data, expectations not excuses, strong leadership, effective teaching and time on task. (Minneapolis Public Schools) stands behind these proven strategies as being necessary at every level of our organization in order to effect real, positive change in achievement for every student.

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“I believe in these strategies.”

Chew on that, Ms. Nordgren. Honest union critics will not be silenced in Minneapolis. Open, free and honest debate will prevail, and that can only lead to better things for the district and its students.

Introducing Dr. Steve Perry

The controversy started a few weeks ago, when the Minneapolis Foundation, through its RESET Education campaign, sponsored a panel discussion of education issues at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.

One of the speakers on the panel was Dr. Steve Perry, a noted educator from Hartford, Connecticut. Perry is the founder and principal of one of the nation’s top-performing schools, Capital Preparatory Magnet, which sends 100 percent of its students to college.

The vast majority of the students in his school are low-income children of color.

Dr. Steve Perry
Dr. Steve Perry

Perry didn’t mince words when he talked about the necessity to make students the top priorities in public schools, instead of adult employees and their financial interests.

“I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make change,” Perry told his St. Paul audience, which reportedly included many Minneapolis teachers and union officials.

“The question is not whether you can make successful schools in the Twin Cities, but will you make successful schools in the Twin Cities? Can you stop making excuses for grown people who can’t teach? Are you focused more on your friends’ jobs or your children’s futures? If you’re more interested in protecting the teachers union than your children, then you deserve the schools you have.”

Perry was merciless with unions that protect the employment of their less successful members and perpetuate the existence of failing schools.

“I know in polite company, you’re not supposed to talk about the unions,” Perry said. “But I will. I know you’re here. I hope you hear me, because I’m tired of you. Every time you fight to keep a failed teacher in a school, you’re killing children, and that’s not cool.

“Every single time you make a job harder to remove someone who is simply not educating, and everybody in the building knows they’re not educating, you’re killing your profession, you’re killing our community and you’re making it harder on yourselves.

“It’s high time we call the roaches out and call them for what they are. I’ve been to too many cities where the excuses pile up, one on top of the other. You know what happens with those excuses? They kill our kids.”

Perry’s honest rhetoric did not sit well with the local unions, and Nordgren responded by penning her letter demanding that the school district break ties with the RESET campaign.

“This week the Minneapolis public school district sponsored a meeting at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul along with key players in the anti-union, corporate education reform movement,” Nordgren wrote.

“The meeting’s keynote speaker was Dr. Steve Perry, a magnet school principal from Connecticut and noted anti-union activist, who spent the evening abrasively trashing teachers and our unions. He went as far as to say ‘We need to call out the roaches’ when referring to teachers unions. Dr. Perry went on to blame teachers for the ‘literal death’ of children. This was a horrific accusation that was truly beyond the bounds of reality and acceptable dialogue.

“Our district’s involvement in both this event and the RESET campaign calls into question their willingness to collaborate with Minneapolis educators, students and families to produce education policy that puts the student at the center.

“It is time for MPS district leadership to declare if they stand with their employees and families or with the corporate reformers to find the best ways to education all students.”

Johnson refuses to back down

Many school administrators, particularly in pro-union states like Minnesota, would buckle at the knees over such a letter and promise not to offend the union again.

But Johnson is obviously different. She published a letter in response to Nordgren’s, and did not give an inch:

“MPS looks to our community members, organizations and partners to back our students and teachers,” Johnson wrote. “One of these partnerships, among many, is the Minneapolis Foundation’s RESET campaign. The campaign is sponsored by other Minnesota schools, organizations and businesses, all of which are focusing on helping close the achievement gap in Minnesota. The RESET strategies align with several of the research-based priorities in the school district.

“Labeling supporters of RESET as anti-union or teacher-bashers is unfair and concerning. Many of our city’s strongest supporters of public education – in particular, MPS – have united with a sense of urgency to bring more attention to Minneapolis’ unacceptable achievement gap.

“We acknowledge that some of Dr. Perry’s comments were controversial, divisive and more aggressive than many of us are accustomed to. While Dr. Perry’s views on unions are negative, during his speech he delivered many brutal and true facts about our academic struggles in an extremely direct and aggressive way. Unfortunately, some individuals and groups are dismissing his overall message of acting urgently to save a generation of young people because of the sharp rhetoric he used during his speech and the subsequent panel discussion.

“Regardless of one’s feelings about Dr. Perry, it does not change the need for all of us to stay focused on our strategies to dramatically improve the educational outcomes of students, in particular for our American Indian, African American and Latino students. MPS will continue supporting our teachers and collaborating with (the union) for the future of our children. We will also continue working with our partners who time and again support our work in so many ways.”

In other words, Ms. Nordgren, your demand is denied.

Lynnell Mickelsen, president of Put Kids First Minneapolis, also published a letter bashing Nordgren’s fear of honest criticism.

“The MFT (and Education Minnesota) have attempted to silence any honest discussions about the union’s role in the achievement gap by rigidly controlling the public discourse,” Mickelsen wrote.

“Dr. Steve Perry scares the hell out of Lynn because he doesn’t play by the same set of usual rules of limited discourse the union has constructed for Minneapolis leaders and community members. His talk could give people more courage to openly challenge a system that is deeply failing their children.

“If Lynn found him shocking, then she’s out of touch with the depth of anger in the community. Instead of trying to shut him down, she should listen and learn.”