MINNEAPOLIS – Any Americans who still believe the education reform movement is just a right-wing ploy to “privatize” public education need to be introduced to Lynnell Mickelsen.

mickelsen 2Mickelsen is president of the grassroots group “Put Kids First Minneapolis” that’s fighting the local teachers union to enact urgently needed reforms in Minneapolis Public Schools.

In the course of carrying out that mission, Mickelsen is emerging as one of the most eloquent and insightful teacher union critics in the nation. What’s most interesting, though, is that she’s doing it from a left-wing, pro-labor point of view.

For now, Mickelsen’s scathing critiques of selfish teacher union behavior are only directed at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. However, the power of her personal story and her pro-reform arguments transcends state and school district boundaries.

They deserve to be heard by a national audience, if only to show the depth and diversity of those who want top-to-bottom reform of public education.

Mickelsen’s conversion from reflexive teacher union supporter to a K-12 reform crusader was as gradual as it was unexpected. In a recent essay for MinnPost.com, Mickelsen explains she became a dues-paying union member when she was still in high school and continued being one throughout her career as a newspaper journalist.

Her pro-union sympathies were so strong that just 10 years ago, Mickelson admits to sounding like a teacher union apologist any time she discussed what ailed Minneapolis’ public school system and the huge achievement gap that exists between white and minority students.

Back then, she viewed schools as “the victims.”

“The real problem was long-term poverty and what it did to families,” Mickelsen writes. “So, until we first fixed poverty and poor brown parenting, (I thought) people should lay off schools.”

But that all changed when she realized “a big part of the problem is not that too many poor brown people don’t care enough about their own kids. It’s that too many white middle-class people like me don’t care enough about those same kids.” (her emphasis)

“In Minneapolis, we’re watching an aging white union saying no to best practices even as thousands of kids of color are failing. Which is sort of like doctors refusing to wash their hands while young patients die in droves,” she adds.

Mickelsen credits “the freaking data” produced through the No Child Left Behind law for changing her outlook. She says the “academic gaps” between white and minority students were “so stark, wide and systematic” that they couldn’t be shrugged off any longer.

She writes: “This is what institutional racism looks like, folks: Starkly different outcomes for different groups right here in one of the most progressive cities in America.”

She backs up her charge of “institutional racism” by noting that if Minneapolis Public Schools’ white middle-class boys were failing at the rates its young, African-American males are, residents would have deemed it an urgent crisis and fixed the school system long ago.

“But when it’s African-American boys, we’ve mostly wrung our hands and shrugged helplessly,” she notes.

A data-driven conversion

The No Child Left Behind numbers weren’t the only ones that got Mickelsen’s attention. She writes that Minneapolis schools’ own data shows effective teachers produce a year-and-a-half worth of student learning over the course of a nine-month school year, while their ineffective peers produce just six months’ of academic gains.

“So if your kid gets two lousy teachers in a row, they can end up being two years behind their cousin who had the great teacher across the hall. Just by luck of the draw,” Mickelsen writes.

The other major factor in Mickelsen’s transformation was caused by the stunning success a handful of public charters in Minneapolis and St. Paul had with student populations that mirrored those in Minneapolis’ failing public schools.

She writes:

“At first, I brushed this success off as a fluke, or just kill-and-drill or something else that would soon fade. But this success has kept going and more high-performing charters keep opening. … After seeing these schools, I no longer think the problem is that we don’t know how to create schools that work for low-income kids of color. Our problem is we’re not willing to do it because this would involve changing the status quo, which upsets (progressives’) traditional allies in the teachers union, who also happen to be the single largest donor to (Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor) candidates in this state.”

Mickelsen is a staunch supporter of the school reform agenda being touted by Minneapolis schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, which includes “better teacher quality, flexibility in hiring and layoffs, a longer school day at lower-performing schools and more.”

That agenda mirrors the wish list of parents and K-12 reform advocates across the nation.

She’s also an advocate for making contract talks between the union and the district open to the public. Those talks were open until this fall, when the Minnesota Federation of Teachers exercised their right to close ongoing contract negotiations.

In a September op-ed, Mickelsen concluded the union is dragging out talks because it “already has the contract it wants.”

She writes:

“Yes, it’s wildly tilted to the comfort of senior teachers – at the expense of students, junior teachers and the common good. Yes, it forces our schools to operate like it’s 1959, even as thousands of kids keep failing. Yes, it blocks key changes that could help the worst achievement gap in this state.

“But from the union’s perspective, it’s been working out just fine. So the MFT’s game plan in negotiations has been to just say no, run out the clock and agree to a few tiny tweaks that are then hailed as Huge Steps Forward On Behalf of All Children and so forth.

“What can I say? It works like a charm. The union usually controls the school board, so MFT leaders don’t have to worry about being taken to strike. They can be the Union of No without penalty.”

Writing like that could make Mickelsen a hero of the right-to-work crowd, but she wouldn’t want that.

Mickelsen’s a self-described “longtime labor supporter” who thinks Republicans “suck” for opposing ever-increasing aid to K-12 schools.

She still believes that poverty and dysfunctional family dynamics matter to a child’s overall academic success, but says that can no longer be an excuse for progressives to sit on their hands when it comes to common sense school reforms.

“It’s not an either/or choice,” she writes. “We can do both. We must do both.”

By being to the right of her progressive friends and to the left of many of her K-12 reform allies, Mickelsen has staked out a unique position in the education reform landscape.

And that makes Mickelsen an extremely interesting and necessary voice in this ongoing debate.

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