Minneapolis mayoral candidates debate city's education challenges

Minneapolis voters and Mayor RT Rybak agree: The next mayor of Minneapolis needs to focus on education. Six of the leading candidates vying to replace Rybak laid out their visions for the city's schools at a debate Monday night sponsored by education reform groups.

Rybak, who isn't seeking re-election, told MinnPost recently he wishes he'd spent more of his 12 years in office trying to improve the city's schools. He also critiqued the education proposals from some of his potential replacements.

The article became fodder for the debate. Attorney Cam Winton, who has the support of the city's Republican Party, used it to take a jab at DFLer Mark Andrew, while giving the audience a pop quiz: "Mayor Rybak, the cheeriest politician in the history of time, described the education comments of Mark Andrew using which of the following phrases -- A 'deeply stupid,' B 'reckless', C 'garbage', D 'wrong' or E all of the above?"

The answer was E. Rybak blasted Andrew for comments he made at a union-sponsored debate last month. At that forum, Andrew said parts of the education reform movement were tied to conservative groups that want to "bust" teacher's unions.

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In last night's debate, Andrew defended himself against the idea that he's beholden to labor interests.

"In all of the years I have served in public office, I have been respected as an independent-thinking person. I have a titanium spine, and I'm not bashful about standing up to any individual or any group of people," he said. "I am here tonight because I care about our kids."

Andrew also voiced support for charter schools and Teach for America -- two education trends he's criticized at other points in the campaign.

Teach for America, which co-sponsored the debate, allows students from elite colleges to teach in impoverished school districts without going through the usual licensing process. The program has come under fire from Minnesota's teacher's union. But Council Member and candidate Betsy Hodges says that argument misses the point.

"Teach for America is not the solution," she said.

Instead, Hodges said the problem is that the pool of teachers isn't diverse enough and she was willing to consider any workable solution to that challenge.

For the most part, the six candidates agreed on education policies. They all want better standardized tests, but fewer of them. They all think schools should reduce the number of students they suspend, and look for other ways to address behavior problems. And they all like Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson's plan to give struggling schools more autonomy to improve student performance.

Before Johnson can implement that plan she'll need to negotiate a tough contract with the city's teacher's union. Council Member and mayoral candidate Don Samuels said she'll need the next mayor's support to succeed.

"Right as we sit here and as she negotiates that contract, the forces of the status quo are coming at her hard. This ain't pretty. It's Minnesota Nice until the negotiations begin," he said. "And then Bernadeia's going to need a human shield, and I'm a volunteer."

Most candidates simply repeated the education policy proposals they made earlier in the campaign, but Independence Party-endorsed candidate Stephanie Woodruff announced a plan to give the next mayor a real incentive to improve the schools.

If Woodruff is elected, she said she'd turn half of her mayoral salary into a performance bonus.

"If students of color do not advance in their reading and writing proficiency, then I will not collect that other half of my salary," she declared.

Former city council president Jackie Cherryhomes also participated in the debate.

Dan Cohen, another former city council president running for mayor, wasn't invited. But he swung by to tell a reporter afterwards that many students struggle in school is because they lack a stable family. If you want to help a child succeed, bring her father back into her life: "He's out of the home because he can't afford a family. The key to this is jobs."

A poll released this week by the Star Tribune showed Cohen tied for first place with Samuels. But each had just 16 percent support. The poll also suggested candidates could gain ground by talking about education. It was the No. 1 issue on voters' minds.