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Education a priority for Minneapolis mayoral candidates

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Don Samuels
Minneapolis City Councilmember Don Samuels, also running for mayor, announces his education plan on the steps of Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis. "We're being beaten by states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. This is absurd," Samuels said.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

The leading candidates for mayor of Minneapolis all say the city needs to make education a priority. Although they offer differing visions for achieving that goal, they all face a common challenge: The mayor of Minneapolis has no direct control over the city's schools.

Voters care about education, and City Councilmembers Don Samuels and Betsy Hodges, former Hennepin County commissioner Mark Andrew and attorney Cam Winton say they have answers. Samuels' education plan includes creating a privately funded trust to funnel money both to schools deemed innovative and those that are struggling. He said Minneapolis needs improve the performance of minority students, who lag behind their white counterparts on standardized test. The disparity in achievement is worse in Minnesota than in virtually any other state.

"We're being beaten by states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. This is absurd," he said from the steps of Harvest Preparatory School, a North Minneapolis Charter School. "Nobody thought Mississippi could beat Minnesota at anything -- certainly not education."

Samuels was one of three mayoral candidates to hold an education press conference on Monday. Just a block away in front of the Donald M. Fraser Early Childhood Family Development Center, Andrew told supporters the next mayor can't afford to ignore the schools.

"Getting involved in this issue is in the long-term best interest of the city," he said. But Andrew, who is skeptical of charter schools, takes a different approach.

"As a historic preference, I've supported fortifying our public school system and have not supported siphoning resources for charter schools, because many of them don't have a track record," he said.

Andrew concedes that some charter schools "appear" to be succeeding. But he said that's the exception, not the rule. He also attacked opponents and said they haven't done enough on education on the City Council.

Mark Andrew
Mayoral candidate Mark Andrew accepts the endorsement of former candidate and teacher Jim Thomas, left, at a press conference on the lawn of the Donald M. Fraser Early Childhood Family Development Center in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Betsy Hodges, a City Council member for eight years, fired back at Andrew, who's been in the private sector running a marketing firm for more than a decade.

"I'm proud of the work I've been doing actually out in the community for the last 10 years," Hodges said during her own education press education press conference at city hall. "I have not been sitting on the sidelines, sitting idle. I've gotten actual results for the people of Minneapolis, including our kids, including our families and including our teachers."

Hodges pointed to a city program that connects high school students with summer jobs as one example. If elected mayor, Hodges said she would focus her energy on preparing children for kindergarten.

"Most of a child's brain development happens before they're born and in the first year of life," she said. "And if that goes well -- if a child is born healthy, if a child has what they need to develop well -- they're in a much better position to take advantage of early childhood opportunities, to take advantage of kindergarten."

Hodges also promised to expand the city health department's efforts to educate new parents about nutrition and safe child care techniques.

Most of the candidates say the city already has the tools it needs to improve the school system. But Winton, a political independent who has the support of the city's Republican Party, wants to make more dramatic changes - among them giving Minneapolis longer school days and longer school years.

Betsy Hodges
Minneapolis City Councilmember Betsy Hodges, also running for mayor, discusses the city's role in early childhood education at a press conference Aug. 12, 2013, in the City Hall rotunda. If elected mayor, Hodges said she would focus her energy on preparing children for kindergarten.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

"To tinker around the edges with buzzwords and fluff doesn't get the job done for our kids," said Winton, who wants to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

Winton also wants the Legislature to give the mayor the power to appoint three school board members. He said direct mayoral influence would raise the profile of education issues. Increase the accountability of the school district and public awareness of education issues.

"There's just a thing about the mayor that makes him or her a singular focus of attention that does give them a megaphone," he said.

Winton, who didn't hold a press conference on Monday, said when mayors speak about education, people pay attention.

That's one thing all the candidates agree on: the next mayor's most powerful tool in shaping the city's schools will be the bully pulpit.