If I were an Edison Parent
I'd turn the other cheek

The public schools run by Edison have taken a pounding recently. A few Edison supporters have been tempted to fight back but I'd recommend my Momma's advice: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

I don't recommend following this advice just to be nice. I think its good politics. Ironically, the current president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, Frank Wanner, has the most to gain from a brawl between Edison and everybody else. Most of the criticisms I have read in the newspaper have reflected criticisms I first read in Frank's newsletter. Mr. Wanner is like the kid in a school yard who eggs the other kids on to fight each other. Most Duluth school teachers, whatever their feelings about Edison, just want the controversy to die so that they can get back to work.

Frank has a long history of using divide and conquer tactics.For instance, after I was elected Frank announced to a general meeting of the teachers that I would "be no friend of teachers." I made up my mind to prove him wrong. I met with Frank a half dozen times even though my fellow Board members warned me not to. One of those times Frank said: "You know Harry, George Balach thinks you're an idiot."

I could have gotten mad at George but I just laughed and told Frank I already knew that. I deprived Frank of the satisfaction of seeing me lash into George. I could see through Frank's tactic and I don't really think George thinks I'm an idiot. George is brusque and he's been toughened by 12 years on the Board during which time he has suffered numerous unofficial boycotts of his business. Besides, George is the quintessential jock and I'm a free spirit. What is a guy with a head as thick as a football helmet supposed to think about a guy who wears gorilla slippers?

Why do some teacher's bristle at the mention of Edison? Well, they feel like their  under assault. Since the "Nation at Risk" report in the 1980's public schools have been pilloried. Anyone who has followed the news knows that public education has its flaws. This is not news and neither is the panic about fixing public education. As I was cleaning out my attic the other day I came across an American Heritage magazine from February 1990 with the story "Reforming Public Schools: 200 years of Crises."

As a former teacher who had to deal with some of public education's failings, including some of my own, I tackled the school board with the idea that change was necessary. When asked if I was willing to try a "charter school" during the 1995 election I said yes. This is not a place to discuss the complexities of Minnesota's charter school law but Duluth followed the rules and our Edison in Duluth is a reflection of what the charter law demands it to be. We've been taken to court three times over Edison and never lost a case.

Charter schools were a challenge to the existing system and initially the legislature gave them a very uneven playing field. Charters tended to get kids the public schools didn't want to deal with. They were/are given less funding. They depended heavily upon volunteers. They had to scramble to find a place to hold school. With all these disadvantages the early charters were not much of a threat. The system could rest easy. That is beginning to change and its not surprising people like Mr. Wanner have an interest in miring the "competition" in controversy.

Even before Edison got the nod competition in general was a viewed as a threat by "the system." After the School Board closed 5 elementary schools in 1993 Washburn School was sold to a church with a provision in the contract that prevented the church from selling it to anyone who wanted to have a school in the building. That is the national policy of teacher's unions and the National School Board Association. A few months later when the Diocese of Duluth and the Lakeview Christian academy asked to buy two of the other closed schools the School Board turned them down and began to make plans to demolish the buildings. Back then the school district was heading deeply into debt and the plan to spend $200,000 to tear down buildings rather than collect money for their sale did not go over well with the public. That was the moment the Duluth School Board's attitude began to change.

That change of heart did not extend to the teacher's union leadership. Parents, outraged by the school closings, tried to use the new law to start their own charter schools. One group went to UMD's Department of Education and asked for help in designing a charter. When Frank Wanner got wind of this he called the college and warned the Education Department that they would never be able to place a student teacher in a Duluth again if they helped anyone start a charter school. That would have destroyed the Education Department so they quickly backed off. No one wanted to arouse Frank's ire.

Frank's strength comes from the myth he's helped foster that the administration, school board and public are hostile to teachers and that he's the only person who can protect them.

This myth is very ironic because Frank's wit and venom have driven the powers he's "protecting" the teachers from to go around him rather than deal with him.  I've watched this with great interest since I've been on the school Board. I've taken to calling Edison the Frank Wanner Memorial Edison schools. Frank has driven his "enemies" to find alternatives one of which is Edison. Now he has to live with the consequences of our rocky relationship. Frank threatened to target me in this election at a meeting in which he claimed that Edison was never intended to go beyond 8th grade. When I asked the several hundred Edison parents at this meeting if they had been told Edison would expand to a high school and they all raised their hands it was embarrassing for Frank to have his lack of attention pointed out so publicly.

This little page is devoted to the idea that Edison parents should turn the other cheek. I had no more than typed the first paragraph of this page when I looked at the morning paper. There on the editorial page was just what I had in mind. It was a lovely letter from a parent.   It was generous when describing the public schools while pointing out that her children needed something else. In her case it wasn't Edison they needed, it was the Marshall School. Edison parents could learn from her letter.(Here's an Update as of Jan 27, 2005. The writer of the letter I just referred to has asked me to remove her letter. It was a glowing account of the private Marshall School. Evidently Marshall  later failed her child so she wanted to remove the testimonial from my website.)

The School Board I was first elected to was trying to broaden the choices available to children and families when we invited Edison to set up a public school three years ago. Some teachers took this invitation as an indictment on our system and no one has harped on this point more than Mr. Wanner. If Mr. Wanner had been in my shoes over the past few years he would have gotten an earful from anxious parents and he might have have come to appreciate the need to keep the customer satisfied. Complacency is not an option.

The Duluth Schools are wonderful for most children including my own but it is not easy to be all things to all people. I presume that Edison families have a variety of reasons for choosing Edison: all day kindergarten, take home computers, the close proximity of the school with home etc.. Most people don't seem to realize that Edison has fewer financial resources than an equivalent Duluth school. Consequently, it must make sacrifices to provide these choices. Some of these sacrifices give our schools the advantage.

If Edison parents feel compelled to respond to critical letters I have some suggestions.

1. You've gotta accentuate the positive - By all means tell people why Edison is a good fit for your family and your child. Since Edison is a choice and choice is an issue, tell the public what you think about having several flavors of public schools to choose from.

2. Eliminate the negative - Don't talk about the weaknesses of others schools even if you or your child experienced them. Just because you prefer strawberry doesn't mean that chocolate is a bad flavor!   

3. Latch on the the affirmative

4. And don't mess with Mr. Im-Between

lyrics by Johnny Mercer