If I were an Edison
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 that this fact came as no surprise to me. I thus 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 it is an insult to their professionalism. 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." Where public schools are concerned everyone is a critic and they always have been.
As a former teacher 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 schools in Duluth abide by the law. We've been taken to court three times over Edison by the teacher's union 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 regular public schools didn't want. They were/are given less funding. They depended heavily upon volunteers. They had to scramble to find a place to hold school. With these disadvantages the early charters were not much of a threat to the teacher's unions. This has changed and its not surprising that unions are now intent on undermining the competition.
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 the building to anyone who wanted to turn it back into a school. This, by the way, is actually the policy of teacher's unions and the National School Board Association. A few months after the sale of Washburn the Diocese of Duluth and the Lakeview Christian academy asked to buy other closed public 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 make money by selling them did not go over well with the public. Public reaction helped change the School Board's mind.
The original decision to close elementary buildings in the early 90's led disgruntled parents to explore the early charter legislation. Minnesota had just pioneered the legislation. The first charter was established in the town of Cherry a little north of Duluth. A group Duluth parents 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 school again if they had anything to do with any charter schools. UMD backed off immediately.
Frank's strength comes from the myth he's helped foster the myth that the school board, administration, and public are hostile to teachers and that he's the only person who can protect them.
Its ironic but Frank's wit and venom have driven the school board and administration to work around him rather than 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 and one of them is Edison.
Frank, came to the School Board once and 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 all of them raised their hands. Frank must have been embarrassed by this show of hands so he turned to me and threatened to target me in the 99 election.
This is a brief history of Edison. The controversy isn't over yet but when it rears its ugly heads I hope parents follow the example this letter-to-the-editor from an Edison parent.
The School Board I was first elected to was trying to broaden the choices available to children and families. That's why we invited Edison to come to Duluth in 1996. If Mr. Wanner had been in my shoes he would have gotten an earful from anxious parents and might have come to realize how important is is for us 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 started out with 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