When the pandemic struck in the early spring of 2020, it exposed the fragility of many elements of our society. Chief among these was the realization of just how dependent we all are on the people who make everything stick together, from grocery workers to healthcare professionals to teachers.
Parents suddenly found themselves at home with a newfound understanding of all that goes into educating their children. We saw firsthand the lengths to which teachers went to adjust their curriculum on the fly and when children at last went back to in-person school, we sent them with a renewed appreciation for the many-layered ways that schools function in our society, from achieving learning outcomes to providing social spaces for children to grow in hard-to-define ways they missed out on at home.
But we also wondered how well schools were really functioning in the first place. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the discussion around Minneapolis Public Schools was about the Comprehensive District Design and the changes it would make to the shape of public education here. Amidst the upheaval of distance learning, the CDD was quietly accepted and began to reshape our schools. And now we see that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals are prepared to strike to secure a living wage for teachers and ESPs.
(Update, Feb. 18: Just after midnight, Minneapolis and St. Paul teachers and support staff revealed that they voted "overwhelmingly" to authorize a strike.)
In response to this, Superintendent Ed Graff has put on his best grim face and sent out an email outlining all the horrible things that could happen if teachers strike—from school extending into summer to the stalling of academic progress—and explaining that the union simply wants too much money.
This is disingenuous gaslighting and borderline disgusting. The budget increases outlined in Graff’s email are presented as an aggregate of millions of dollars, ignoring that this is simply the cost of paying essential education professionals a living wage and providing the kind of additional mental health support that the pandemic showed us is so desperately necessary in school systems. MFT is asking for ESPs to be paid $35,000 a year and Graff wants us to be aghast at a total increase of $168 million over two years. And yet the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget is $193 million a year and rising and they just keep killing Black and Brown people.
It’s easy to say that student learning is your highest priority. It’s a lot harder to actually put that into practice. I have two children in the Minneapolis Public Schools system and I’ve seen firsthand the care and passion their teachers have put into my children’s education. We’ve all heard that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. But that principle shouldn’t be used as a cudgel against people who put in uncounted hours and their own resources to bring that love to our children. Graff says “MFT’s proposals are not fiscally feasible,” but let’s be clear: This is a decision about where our beliefs truly lie.
This pandemic has been a moment of real reckoning about not only how important public education is but how badly it needs to be reprioritized in society. We cannot afford to continue shortchanging these essential workers.
Steve McPherson is a writer and parent who lives in Minneapolis.