Don Samuels, Mayoral Candidate in Minneapolis: “Burn Down the Schools.”

Dec 28


Don Samuels has announced that he (among a plethora of others) is considering a run for mayor of Minneapolis now that R.T. Rybak has decided not to seek a fourth term. It is important that people have a chance to remember that Mr. Samuels (and his political ally, Mayor Rybak) launched a highly inflammatory — and inaccurate — attack on the public schools of Minneapolis in early 2007 (although neither man had made the schools an issue during their election campaigns).

Their assault caused damage to the standing and reputation of Minneapolis schools and served to advance the cause of private- and charter school advocates who were interested in taking away large chunks of taxpayer funds to support their own education efforts.

In the interest of restoring the record, I am re-publishing here three columns I wrote in the StarTribune in February, 2007. They are no longer available on the Strib website, where most of the 1,000 or so columns I wrote between 2003 and 2010 have gone down the memory hole. But they are still available in library databases, and I present them here, in chronological order. My only purpose is to make them more readily available.

1) FEBRUARY 2, 2007
So North High Has Troubles? Let’s Torch It

Burn it.

That’s City Councilman Don Samuels ‘ suggestion for Minneapolis North High School: Burn it down.

Someone please call the Fire Department and ask if they have anything to spray on dangerously overheated rhetoric.

Samuels , whose ward includes North High, is profiled by David Brauer in this month’s Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine. Watch you don ‘t get your eyebrows singed off by this:

“I’ve said burn North High School down! I can’t be paying as a taxpayer for the education of my neighbors and 72 percent of them are failing – meaning the black boys.”

Samuels says he read that 72 percent figure somewhere. I can’t find it. As far as I can tell, North is not the worst high school in the city. In fact, it has some good things going for it, including a dynamic principal who is making changes. In my mind, public schools need help from public officials. They don ‘t need a kick in the teeth.

North High Principal Mike Favor, a 1984 North High grad, says Samuels ‘ flame-throwing is not aiding efforts to bring improvements to the school of 1,000 students (68 percent are black).

The school has been an anchor of the African-American community for decades.

“It’s damaging,” said Favor, who plans to meet with Samuels early this morning, before Samuels meets with the school’s faculty to try to explain himself. “To hear something like that is offensive. I feel like I have to apologize to every North High graduate and to anyone who sends their kid here. It’s disheartening.”

By the way, Samuels is a close ally of Mayor R.T. Rybak. I called Rybak’s office to ask where he stands on his friend’s proposal to burn down a high school. I didn’t get an answer.

Favor, in his third year as principal, is proposing lots of changes: An extended school year, rigorous class requirements and the wearing of a school uniform. Samuels , who has not set foot inside North during the school day, supports those changes. But the black elected official (he is a native of Jamaica) refuses to withdraw his comments.

“I’m not here to be liked,” Samuels said Thursday. “I’m against anything that tolerates the failure of black people. This is the most important conversation we can have, and I meant it [his remarks] exactly as I made them, in order to make people angry and raise concern to a visceral level. I’m speaking forcefully against the current way of doing things.”

Samuels ‘ attack seems linked to his advocacy of school vouchers – the controversial proposal to let families use public tax dollars to pay for private schools. A Baptist minister, Samuels sends his children to Ascension Catholic School. His wife, Sondra, works as a local organizer for the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities, a Milwaukee-based group that is pushing for school vouchers.

That group is largely funded with grants from right-wing foundations – including the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation – considered by some to be hostile to all public education.

“My children will not darken the door of a Minneapolis public school,” Samuels was quoted as saying. Other black leaders have said such things. But it is shocking, coming from the official who represents the North High area.

“The North Side has a resilient history, and we are a resilient people,” says Favor. “For him to just throw in the towel like this – well, maybe he doesn’t understand the history of the North Side. We are not above criticism; we have to do better. But we are a pillar of the North Side and this is about our community. ‘Burn it down?’ Come on in, before you start going after us.”

Samuels did not make vouchers an issue in his campaigns (he won a special election in 2003, then won a four-year term in 2005). So his incendiary words blindsided many, including the students.

I met with a dozen North High kids. All are getting passing grades, some are on the honor roll, most hope to go to college. Some are basketball players, some are Wallin Scholars, some are both.

And all agreed: Don Samuels doesn’t know enough about North High to burn it down.

“Burn our school down? That’s like taking a shot at us – like saying tear us down, too,” said Jeremiah Moore, a junior.

“Nobody here has met the man, so how can he say that about us?” asked Troy Miller, a sophomore. “He’s playing it safe, blaming the school because it has a stereotype and a stigma against it.”

“I think he based that on what happens around the community, not at North High,” said Ronald Buck, a senior. “It’s a cop-out. It shows he doesn’t want to put the work in to make our school progress.”

By accident or on purpose, Don Samuels has started a conflagration. I hope the fire doesn’t get out of control.

2) FEBRUARY 9, 2007
Memo to Samuels, Rybak: Do Your Duty and help fix schools

Public schools are in trouble around the country, and in many cities, elected officials have taken charge of efforts to fix them.

In Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty has proposed to take control of the schools. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already engineered a takeover and appoints the chancellor of the schools. And in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley has put education at the top of his political agenda.

But in Minneapolis? A City Council member suggested torching a public school and the mayor shared his outrage over problems in the schools.

It’s not the rhetoric that is inadequate here. It is the action.

Council Member Don Samuels has apologized for saying North High School should be burned, but he has stuck by his incendiary criticism of the public schools, which, as we shall see in a moment, badly exaggerated the learning gap between whites and blacks.

After Samuels got in hot water for his remarks, his close ally, Mayor R.T. Rybak, whose children attend private school, gave him a rhetorical backup: “I share his [ Samuels '] very real outrage for a learning gap that has left too many African-American students behind,” Rybak said.

OK. We’re all outraged. Fine. Now let’s get something done.

Samuels says 72 percent of African-American boys in the Minneapolis schools are failing. His claim is being quoted as gospel in some quarters, such as this letter to the editor in the Star Tribune: “More than 70 percent of black kids are not graduating high school.”

Nope. Not true.

Not even close.

The truth, required by the No Child Left Behind Act: In the city’s seven high schools – Edison, Henry, North, Roosevelt, South, Southwest and Washburn – 72 percent of black kids graduated last year.

That’s far behind the white graduation rate of 92 percent and all public officials should be trying to find ways to close the gap.

But a 72 percent success rate is the inverse of the number being used by the school-burning crowd. The schools are not failing 72 percent of black kids; they are succeeding with 72 percent. The graduation rates for all races are lower when you include alternative school programs, but North (which has the largest percentage of black kids), is one of the most successful schools, graduating 82 percent of black kids. Only Washburn, with 84 percent, scores higher.

For a politician to attack one of the schools that is doing best with black kids is flat-out irresponsible.

But I don ‘t endorse the demand of some community leaders that Samuels resign. I believe that Samuels , like the schools, is 72 percent successful and has room to improve.

Unlike Samuels and Rybak, I have enrolled a child in the Minneapolis public schools. Three, in fact. They went all the way – from kindergarten to diploma – and got great educations. That doesn’t make me an expert, just a consumer.

But when I hear people attacking city schools in order to serve their own agenda, it ticks me off. And there is an agenda at work, make no mistake.

A weird coalition of bedfellows – ranging from anti-government activists on the far right of the ideological spectrum to sincere reformers – have targeted public schools in the hopes of prying loose tax dollars to fund their own educational experiments.

Samuels ‘ wife, Sondra, an organizer for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which grew out of the school vouchers experiment in Milwaukee and which is financed largely by right-wing foundations, is involved in those efforts.

School change is necessary and fair-minded criticism is healthy. But the attacks on Minneapolis schools have become deliberately destructive. For elected leaders to participate in those efforts is a disservice to the city.

If Samuels and Rybak – neither of whom made the schools an issue when they were running for reelection 15 months ago – are outraged by public education in Minneapolis, then it is their clear duty to improve the schools.

Not to burn them down.

3) FEBRUARY 18, 2007
Samuels Fans Flames of Public School Bonfire

Don Samuels has apologized for his words, but not his views. And he isn’t likely to. For the Fifth Ward City Council member from Minneapolis who suggested burning down North High School is not just one man with an opinion.

He is a stalking horse for a movement that wants to torch public schools. It has gotten frighteningly close to its goal.

The Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank, is renewing the push for school vouchers, and it tapped Samuels to endorse its position paper. In his foreword to the recent publication, Samuels again displays a flair for the dramatic, writing that he wonders “how many future murderers are in the first grade classes of the four elementary schools within a mile of my home?”

Officer, arrest those first-graders!

But if you take Samuels seriously, it is not just his language that is lousy. It is his policies.

Samuels has become the darling of a coalition of mostly conservative, mostly suburban groups involved in a coordinated assault on “government monopoly schools.” These groups are pushing hard in Minnesota for expanded tax-credit or tuition vouchers to allow public dollars to be spent on private schools. It isn’t just people in the North High neighborhood who should worry about that.

Some groups pushing for vouchers have fought to outlaw gay marriage or to keep children from receiving sex education or learning about evolution. They have a right to send their kids to religious schools. They don ‘t have a right – Article XIII of the State Constitution bars public funding for “sectarian” schools – to subsidize such schools with tax dollars.

Nevertheless, the crusade is on. And Samuels is its hero.

Other black leaders are being lobbied to convert to the vouchers cause. One, NAACP President Duane Reed, says he recently refused requests to testify on behalf of a vouchers/tax credit bill in the Legislature. He says the request came from a group affiliated with the Libertarian Party, whose platform praises tax credits and charter schools as “interim measures” that will help kill the public schools.

“This is not about Don Samuels ,” Reed said at Thursday night’s public meeting at North High with Samuels . “This is about … tax credits. Which is just a code word for vouchers. This is just teeing up a sensational issue.”

“How many black leaders support vouchers?” he said to me later, proceeding to tick off a long list of black groups, starting with the NAACP, that oppose them. “Now Don Samuels all of a sudden is an expert, and he is going to speak for us? I don ‘t think so.”

Charter schools, funded with public funds, were supposed to help produce new teaching methodologies and education strategies. Other states limit their number. New York has a limit of 100. Iowa has a limit of 10. Minnesota has no limit. Today, we have 131 charter schools, with 23,600 students. At least 19 more charter schools are on the way.

How much is too much?

The largest sponsor of charter schools, Friends of Ascension, has ties to former state Republican chairman Bill Cooper, who has served on the group’s board of directors. Friends of Ascension has 16 schools with 2,800 students (12 percent of charter school enrollment). Nor is Cooper the only former Republican Party chair to have found a keen interest in the inner city.

Former GOP chairman Ron Eibensteiner and his wife are the founders of KidsFirst Scholarships, which award privately funded vouchers to children (650 this year) to attend private schools. Those scholarships are funded by grants from right-wing billionaires such as Ted Forstmann and the late John Walton of the Walton Family Foundation. Critics such as the liberal People for the American Way point out an obvious motivation: By handing out private vouchers in the inner city, conservatives hope to create political momentum for state vouchers that will damage public schools.

Not to mention the teaching of evolutionary science.

The fire has been set. Public schools have lost thousands of students to charter schools and open enrollment, and that exodus has been folded into “drop-out rates” that have been recklessly exaggerated by radical opponents of public education, including Don Samuels .

This is not just an intramural squabble in the black community. All supporters of public education should be worried. It is not just North High that is under assault; it is the very idea of public education.

As an inner-city politician with friends in high places, Samuels didn’t set the schools ablaze. He just fanned the flames. But his friends are dancing around the bonfire.