Sarah Lahm: The Story Behind the Minneapolis Charter School Lauded in the New York Times

June 9, 2018 - por

Should progressives embrace charter schools?

This question came up again recently when Teach for America alum and apparent expert on school choice, Conor P. Williams, landed an op-ed in the June 3 New York Times. Williams, who is now an education policy analyst with the New America Foundation, used Minneapolis’s Hiawatha Academies charter school chain as a key example of why, in his opinion, liberal and progressive activists should indeed be pro-charter school.

In 2017, Hiawatha Academies, which operates five highly segregated charter schools in Minneapolis, received a federal school choice expansion grant worth over $1 million dollars, courtesy of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The money has likely been absorbed into Hiawatha Academies’ expansion plans, as the charter network seeks to enroll “6.2% of the Minneapolis student population” in the coming years.

Being affiliated in any way with DeVos and her devotion to accountability-free school choice schemes is probably uncomfortable for a charter school network like Hiawatha Academies, which likes to bill itself as progressive. DeVos continues to not only staunchly defend a Wild West-style approach to public education, she is also heavily engaged in rolling back many federal education policies that are there to protect the nation’s most vulnerable students.

Frankly, it is becoming harder and harder to separate, or pretend to separate, school choice and the spread of segregated charter schools from Betsy DeVos.

Perhaps that is why many of the links in Williams’ op-ed are as stale as the very premise underlying his piece. His first paragraph includes a description of an elementary school in the Hiawatha Academies’ chain, complete with a charming image of a teacher standing before students in a colorful kindergarten classroom. This, Williams proclaims, is one of “Minnesota’s best public schools.” To support this, he links to a celebratory 2012 PR-laden article written by Minnesota based education writer, Beth Hawkins.

Hawkins’ piece was published in MinnPost, a local online news outlet. Here’s why that matters: Hawkins’ stint as an education reporter at MinnPost was funded by the Bush Foundation, one of many local philanthropic groups that has bestowed money, clout and endless public relations support on the growth of charter schools in Minnesota. Oh, and MinnPost was started and run for years by former Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher, Joel Kramer. (Hawkins has since become the national education correspondent for the reform-funded outlet, The 74.)

Here’s why that matters: Kramer’s two sons, Matt and Eli, are both heavily invested in the national and local education reform movement. While Matt was serving as the co-CEO of Teach for America, Eli was busy “growing” the Hiawatha Academies charter school network, which serves mostly Latino families in south Minneapolis. It would be fair to say that the Kramer family has close political and financial ties to elite education reform policy makers and financiers, in Minnesota and on the national stage.

Eli Kramer is leaving Hiawatha Academies. The charter school chain’s new executive director is Colette Owens, another Teach for America acolyte who received her administrative training through a reform-funded venture, the School Systems Leaders Fellowship. Kramer made over $170,000 annually as head of Hiawatha Academies’ five school sites; Owens’s salary has not been publicly disclosed. (For comparison purposes, Ed Graff, superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools and its 60+ sites, has a contract worth $225,000.)

The Hiawatha Academies’ site (Morris Park) profiled by Williams sits in one of the two Minneapolis Public Schools buildings purchased by the charter school chain nearly ten years ago, on its path to grow its market share. “Hiawatha schools should be easy for the left to love,” Williams insists, before promising (without any evidence) that the schools are “full of progressive educators helping children of color from low-income families succeed.”

Beneath the wince-worthy white savior aura of this argument lurk some actual facts worth exploring further. First, Minnesota’s charter schools do not have to follow the same desegregation laws as public schools. This means highly segregated charter schools, like Hiawatha Academies, have been allowed to flourish, creating artificially isolated sites that cater to one particular demographic. If this is progressive, it sure smacks of age-old segregationist policies that allowed for school vouchers and, eventually, charter schools in the face of federal desegregation lawsuits.

Hiawatha Academies’ Morris Park location, for example, sits in a south Minneapolis neighborhood where over 75 percent of residents are white, and the majority do not live in poverty. But you would never know this by reviewing the school’s demographic data.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 91 percent of Hiawatha Academies’ Morris Park students are Latino, and 88 percent live in poverty. Still, Williams insists that the charter network is “successfully” meeting these kids’ needs, and so, presumably, should be excused for being unnaturally racially and economically segregated. But what is the definition of success? If it is standardized test scores, then no, Hiawatha’s Morris Park students are not receiving an education that is “beating the odds,” as education reformers like to say.

Data actually show that test scores at Hiawatha Academies-Morris Park dropped in 2017 and are lower than those of a nearby Minneapolis public school site, Northrop Elementary. Another neighborhood public school, Lake Nokomis Community School, serves almost as many students in poverty and special education students as the Morris Park charter school, but also has twenty-four homeless or highly mobile students on its roster. The charter school had zero.

In his New York Times piece, Williams does acknowledge that Hiawatha Academies schools are staffed by non-union teachers. He also notes that many progressives may also “worry that charters foster segregation, siphon funding from traditional public schools and cater to policymakers’ obsession with standardized tests.” Rather than addressing any of these very real concerns, however, Williams continues on with his fantasy-like defense of charter schools in general and of Hiawatha Academies in particular.

Hiawatha Academies schools are staffed and run by progressives, he assures readers, and they are determined, in the words of outgoing director Eli Kramer, to “elevate the importance of identity, race consciousness” and “pride in self.” Williams then describes taking a walk through the charter chain’s high school, which will relocate this fall to a newly-built campus that has been funded in part by wealthy, Republican-aligned local venture capitalists and philanthropists, not to mention the Walton Family Foundation.

How progressive is that? Many Walmart employees live on food stamps, leaving plenty of profit left over for the Walton family to pour into the promotion of non-union charter schools.

To wrap up his defense of Hiawatha’s privately run, publicly (and privately funded) charter schools, Williams revives yet another stale debate. In trying to prop up Hiawatha’s racially and economically segregated charters, Williams mentions Robert Panning-Miller, who was president of the Minneapolis teachers union from 2007-2009. (Michelle Wiese, the current head of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, is a Latino woman who has helped push the union in a more progressive, social justice-oriented direction. Perhaps her brand of union leadership doesn’t fit into Williams’ narrative.)

Panning-Miller once called Eli and Matt Kramer emblems of a kind of “educational apartheid” for allegedly sending their own children to a private Montessori school (the Kramers’ alma mater) full of wood blocks, natural play areas and hands-on learning, while simultaneously profiting from a test score-driven charter school network for students of color who live in poverty (Hiawatha Academies). Panning-Miller also documented the tightly woven, Kramer-Teach for America cabal that has drawn attention nationwide, and received PR support from, again, Beth Hawkins.

Maybe Williams had to harken back to Panning-Miller’s 2014 critique of the Kramers and Hiawatha Academies because there are so few of them. There is almost no counter-narrative out there for anyone, progressive or not, who would like a more realistic examination of the role Hiawatha Academies and other such narrowly marketed charter schools are playing in the systematic attacks on public education in the United States. As I mentioned, the Kramer family once employed an education writer who continues to serve as a philanthropist-funded champion of school choice.

It is impossible, then, to join Connor P. Williams’ in his unbridled praise for charter schools without fully examining the “ecosystem” of funding, hype and political support that prop up such “schools of choice.” To embrace the racially and economically marginalized population of the Hiawatha Academies charter chain, which Williams tries but fails to defend, would be to also, presumably, embrace the nearly all-white charter schools that also exist in the Twin Cities.

Among these are the Twin Cities German Immersion School, Nova Classical Academy and Great River Montessori School. Is it somehow right for public dollars to be diverted from the public school system (both Minneapolis and St. Paul are facing double-digit deficits for the upcoming school year) to create portfolios of niche charter schools that selectively serve segregated populations of students?

Is that what it means to be a progressive or a liberal? No, it is not. Don’t let the kind of propaganda peddled by Williams and the Kramer family convince you otherwise.

*Sarah Lahm is an independent journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in The Progressive, In These Times and other local and national publications. She blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.